BOOKS FICTION: Never a note wrong

THE MUSIC by James Hamilton-Paterson Cape pounds 9.99
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IT could be argued that nothing disappoints a reviewer quite so much as a good book. No plodding prose to ridicule, no glaring inconsistencies to pull apart, no opportunities to show you're a fundamentally better writer than the person you're reviewing - excellence can be a real downer. In which case this is the mother of all downers, because it's as perfect a collection of short stories as you're ever likely to come across. James Hamilton-Paterson's 15 tales are not merely about music, as their title suggests, but have an intrinsic musicality to their structure.

"All art constantly aspires to the condition of music," opines one character, quoting Walter Pater, just as the author delicately adapts the rhythm of his language to the nature of the story he's telling. A study of two middle-class, twentysomething bachelors thus rocks along with all the playful, mock-serious intensity of some vintage Lynard Skynard single; while a gentle tale of a child musician and his spiritual master - reminiscent at once of Herman Hesse and Khalil Gibran - unwinds mystically, like the floating strains of a flute on a hot summer night. They say Mervyn Peake used his words like watercolours. Hamilton-Paterson uses them like notes, conjuring a distinct melody from each narrative, so that the abiding impression is one of sound as much as image.

In terms of its subjects, the collection is gratifyingly heterogeneous. Settings range from Italy or Manila to Libya; narrators from small children to disillusioned lesbian concert pianists. Each story hinges on music, but the nature of its presence varies, so that sometimes it's all-pervasive, other times a barely-audible background hum. In "Anxieties of Desire", the bitter-sweet memoir of failed composer, and "The Dell", a tale of a young boy's initiation into the higher mysteries of sound, it's everywhere, flooding every sentence. In "Knight", on the other hand, it only comes to the fore at the very end of the story, when a downed American pilot, having survived a year of torture by his Vietcong captors, eventually breaks down on hearing a Bach piano concerto. Here the music acts as catalyst rather than focus, a pivotal point from which the tale gracefully umbrellas into a wider analysis of human frailty and need.

The author's control of language and plot marshals the elements of each story like some pitch-perfect literary Karajan. His mastery of mood, too, is impressive, switching from the eye-stinging tragedy of a raped night- club singer in "Bambi Bar" to the crucifyingly funny events of "People's Disgrace", in which an Eastern Bloc government censor struggles vainly to uncover subversion in the staves of wholly innocent musical compositions: "He subjected the Fowl pest Cantata to a personal scrutiny for hidden expressions of discontent. For one electrifying moment he thought he'd found treason in the brass section during the farmer's anguished outcry at the silence which has suddenly fallen over his poultry sheds. 'Balls to the Motherland' seemed to be the cantus firmus before Feodor pulled himself together and realised it was nothing of the kind."

For all the laughter, however, the lingering mood is melancholic. Even "People's Disgrace" twists into despondency when Feodor's assiduousness leads to the death of his only friend. It's a melancholy summed up and amplified by the collection's concluding piece, "The Music (2)", in which the grandiose musical representations of Christ's decease are compared to the reality of a squalid, painful, fly-blown execution. Can music ever be truthful, it asks; or is it in fact, for all its affecting beauty, a meaningless fraud, a colourful gloss on the cruel drabness of existence? It's a question that reverberates backwards through every story, providing the hook that links each tale with the next; for however diverse its manifestations, the music always leads to a single end: misconception, lies, betrayal.

This is a perfectly tuned selection of tales. Cynical reviewers might point to an over-abundance of pianos, and argue for the strategic inclusion of the odd sackbut or xylophone, but that would be nit-picking. In truth, there's nothing to moan about. Nothing to satirise. Not the least chink at which to aim the tiniest of snide witticisms. Damn.