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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test