It's 1629 and English lutenist Peter Claire is a new face among the clutch of pale foreigners who form the King's special orchestra at the Danish court. And we're talking quite a rotten Denmark - a place of decadence and boredom, a place where the king insists his orchestra perform in a damp dark cellar hidden from view, so that the sound can drift up ethereally. His wife Kirsten gets her kicks in other ways - spanking and being spanked by her secret lover.
The king - well-meaning, but lonely, petulant and deluded - decides that the blond Peter Claire must be some kind of angel who can protect him. He makes him a favourite, singling him out for melancholy chats. Meanwhile Kirsten also gets herself a new friend. Emilia Tilsen, a good and beautiful young woman who is fleeing from chaos and sadness in her family home, comes to be the new lady-in-waiting. When Peter and Emilia meet in the royal gardens, it seems like the stuff of the best fairy tales that they should fall in love.
But - also like the fairy tales - a whirl of events intervenes. The King realises the child Kirsten is carrying can't be his and so he banishes her. As she leaves the court in disgrace on a fish cart, Emilia is with her. Peter meanwhile is powerless to leave the king. Since the couple have only just declared their love - and we're only halfway through the novel - we're left wondering how and when and if they'll get back together. Except that we're not - not really.
When you are in awe of a writer's talent as I am with Tremain, it is the hardest thing to admit that a book has not really engaged you. Again and again I searched the text, wondering why, when the scenes were so perfectly, almost joyfully, described, the images so memorable, the ideas so carefully entwined, did I keep on having the sensation of looking down the wrong end of a telescope? Why didn't I quite care?
I should say right away that the linear plot I have described above does Tremain's novel no justice. There are more characters, situations, subplots, strands of plots and past histories than could possibly be usefully described in this space. In fact, so many different strands are being related that, though she swoops with fantastic alacrity from one to the other, you don't quite get time to enjoy one before you're swept off to something else. And maybe that's the trouble. The book is crammed with delectable moments, imaginative acrobatics, so much stuff. I just found it all too dazzling, too stupefying. I did not know where to look - and a dull but surely essential part of a writer's task is to blinker the reader a little, to provide a calming path through the jangle and cacophony.
Even the themes - of music, longing, silence, beauty - seem so insistently and tightly threaded that I wanted to snip and discard them so that I could see the story better. I suppose that great writers will always be attracted to their big themes, but I do feel Tremain made her point very gloriously and simply in her last novel with a boy, a funny dog and an Action Man.
But then her willingness to do both is her strength, and many people will love and enjoy this book and, perhaps less impatient than me, allow themselves to be bourne away on its tide of grand imaginings. I'm just left wondering how it is that a novel can be rich, original, inventive and soaring and yet leave me so unmoved. A critic's job may be to try to provide - or at least guess at - the answers, but novels are really their own mysteries. And it's one of the strangest - but surely also the most thrilling - facts of fiction, that sometimes even great writing is not quite enough.