The Music Room by William Fiennes
Picador USA, New York, 2009
Borrowed from my local library.
In September I read and reviewed The Snow Geese by William Fiennes. I loved it so much I wanted to read his new book.
The Music Room is memoir written in narrative style. It is the story of the house, actually a castle, where Fiennes grew up. It is also a tribute to his brother, Richard. Richard, eleven years older than William and suffering from epilepsy, was the family’s emotional center as well as it’s focus, but never in a way that detracted from anyone else.
The Music Room describes the great house, part of which was open to the public, and the people who cared for it.
Mid-morning, they came into the kitchen for coffee. I’d last seen them passing through the door to the public side: it seemed they lived in that other world of portraits, plaster ceilings, suits of armour, swords. In the corner, under domed wire-gauze fly guards that hung on nails like fencing masks, Joyce sat on her high stool, feet on the rung. The kitchen was her domain. She put a pan og milk on the hob, a china puck sitting in the bottom to stop it boiling over, and made milky coffee for Mrs Upton, Mrs Green and Mrs Dancer, and hot chocolate for Bert, who arrived with the cut-grass smell on him, unhitching his dentures so his teeth floated out towards me on his tongue. By half-past ten they’d have gathered in the kitchen, Joyce perched on her stool like a tennis umpire, a bowl of cake mixture in her lap while Mrs Upton, Mrs Green, Bert and Mrs Dancer too sat round the green Formica table, delving into the Victoria biscuit tin, Joyce like a mother hen presiding over her chicks, providing for them.
If I wasn’t at school, I’d sit with them.
“How old do you think I am?” Mrs Dancer asked.
“I don’t know,”
“I’m about the same age as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.” from page 39.
This house is filled with history, the people who live and work there have lots of stories to tell. There are all sorts of events held on the grounds,fairs, concerts and festivals. Sometimes film crews show up, bringing with them actor and other interesting people. Fiennes tells of the history of the land and of the house.
But the book is also an accurate description of the difficulties of living with someone who suffers from epilepsy that has caused brain damage, the ups and downs of an illness that has no cure. Fiennes intersperses his narrative with the history of the study of electricity and its effects on the brain, including the famous story of Mr. Phineas Gage. He also includes descriptions of Richard’s bouts with anger, depression and lack of impulse control, and the amazing patience and love shown him by his parents. I am awed by the graceful way Richard was accepted and included in their lives.
Whenever he was fully engaged in some physical task, his tongue dropped in front of his bottom teeth and pushed out his cheek below the corner of his mouth like a wad of dentist cotton wool. Certain epilepsy drugs can cause unusual facial movements called extra-pyramidal movements, and for a while Richards pills caused him to circle his jaw unconsciously, as if he were chewing a cud, his lower lip enlarged and blubbery. Now his tongue already probing his cheek in concentration, he leaned into the branches, fitted the blade and wrestled the saw back and forth until there was only an inch of trunk intact. We heard the first splinter-cracks as the tree teetered. From page 61.
The Music Room is also filled with images of being a child and an adolescent in such an amazing place, with such a challenging brother. Fiennes describes the private and the public spaces. I had great fun just imagining an eight year old boy with free run of a castle, it even has a moat!
I start to look for ways of being alone, self-reliant, away from Richard and my parents. I want, even within the circle of the moat, to be beyond observation. So I disappear into the Barracks or out onto the castle’s roofs, scrambling across leads and stone slates, settling in secret enclosures like pockets among dunes, rooks crossing overhead between the worm-rich park and their rendezvous trees. From page 152
This little book is a loving tribute to Fiennes’s brother and his family. I found it very well written, lyrical and a bit melancholy. I enjoyed it, and look forward to other books by this fine British author.