To Music, By Ketil Bjornstad

Sixties saga hits the high notes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Most coming-of-age novels set in the Sixties have bands like the Rolling Stones and Beatles as their soundtrack. Not so Ketil Bjornstad's To Music. In this story of 16-year-old piano prodigy Aksel Vinding, classical music accompanies him through the soaring highs and heartbreaking lows of a life-changing year. When his mother is swept to her death in a river, Aksel is racked with guilt. She was drunk, and angry following an argument with his father, but he will forever carry the question of whether he and his father could have saved her. His feelings are complicated by memories of a childhood spent with parents who seemed locked in an alcohol-fuelled war.

A mutual love of music had become his and his mother's refuge. Now Aksel feverishly throws himself into practising for a piano competition, to the point where he drops out of school. He falls for a mysterious and tragic fellow pianist, Anja Skoog, but her dominating father forces him to stay away.

This is an enchanting tale of love and death, desire and loss, about how parents and mentors manipulate and ultimately fail the young people entrusted to them. Above all, it's a story of music written by a master in the field. Bjornstad's style is staccato, except when talking about music; then he's in his element, with beautifully honed long sentences that flow and halt, soar and dip just like the classical pieces he is describing.

In addition to his 30 books, Bjørnstad is an internationally acclaimed Norwegian classical musician, jazz pianist and composer. As the author made his debut as a pianist with the Oslo Philharmonic aged 16 in 1969, the novel comes across as deeply personal. This must have been a difficult book to translate, and Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik have done a fine job, particularly in the musical passages. Arguably, a reader who knows classical music will get the most out of this novel, but it can equally be enjoyed by anyone for its accomplished writing and gallery of credible characters.