BOOK REVIEW / No-go arias in Vienna: Other Lulus by Philip Hensher - Hamish Hamilton pounds 11.99

THERE is something of the commedia dell'arte about this engaging novel, underscored by real humanity. Friederike, its narrator, makes frequent childhood visits to her grandparents' Berlin home, where she is taught to enjoy music, live eccentrically (her grandmother drills her shooting stick into the floors of art galleries and calls everyone, without exception, a Scheisskerl) and to be aware of her own singing talent. When her grandfather leaves her all his money, she goes to Vienna and pursues her vocal studies with an Englishman called Archy.

Archy's method is to subject her voice to a stream of insults: he also tells her 'you've got to sing lying on your back the whole time in opera'. Inevitably, he becomes her lover, and later her husband. At the same time he is pursuing his passion - which Friederike is only marginally aware of - for the composer Alban Berg, who happened to teach her grandfather. The novel is built around three discoveries: Friederike's discovery of her voice and herself, Archy's discovery of a putative third act of Berg's Lulu, and the grandmother's disclosure to the world of her husband's music. Confused by lies, lust, love and conflicting loyalties, Friederike keeps herself sane by working her way, day after day, through the recipes in the one cookbook she owns: 'I had several lives now. I had a Berg life, where everything was uncertain, and a cookery life, where the geometric and clean colours and lines of everything reassured me. And then there was an Archy life, which I tried not to think about.'

Like a child observing adults, Friederike's descriptions have a deceptive, revealing simplicity. Her grandmother is 'fat and pale and sweating from her angry journey'. Or Archy: 'Lying on the hard floor, I stared up at the unfamiliar angle of his features, on which it was hard to find any expression, and felt a tremor of fear and desire and hunger in my stomach. Oh God, I thought. Not again. And I could not see what my thoughts meant by that.' When Hensher fails it is because the tone is forced, or because, now and again, uncertainties about the construction of narrative become gimmicks that betray inexperience. There is no need for him to replay the grandmother's theft of the Lulu manuscript: it distracts and annoys, rather than underlining the importance of the event. But these are minor flaws in a work of considerable freshness and originality. Other Lulus is a memorable production.

(Photograph omitted)

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