At what may be crossroads or turning-points in their self-directed paths, two of Britain's most inventive novelists have paused to consider the meaning of the art that they practise via a detour into another that they love: jazz. In the stories of Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro harmonised the crises in his musicians' lives with a "twilight" mood of thwarted hopes and waning powers. In this, his tenth novel, Jim Crace at first seems to forsake his high-definition alternative worlds – the ideal European city of Six; the Biblical desert of Quarantine; the post-calamity wastes of The Pesthouse – for something more mundane. On the eve of his 50th birthday, Leonard Lessing – a middle-ranking jazz saxophonist becalmed on a "sabbatical" in his Middle-England home – finds himself caught up in a hostage-taking drama.
An old Texan comrade from the radical days before tenor smoothie "Lennie Less" went "decaf" (his teacher wife Francine's taunt) has seized a family in a political stunt prior to a global "Reconciliation Summit". By chance, Leonard meets the ageing firebrand Maxie's estranged daughter, Lucy. Together they begin to plot a "mirror kidnap" to end the real one. Meanwhile, the sax man broods on his looming half-century, his idling marriage and stalled career, and the nagging wound of his stepdaughter's flight from home.
Always, in Crace-land, unsettling blue notes bend the most straightforward tune. It's 2024, and suburban life has a different set of rules: hi-tech monitoring of travel and energy use, "digital Smarthouses", para-military security. Crace sketches a near-future where state eco-surveillance blends with strict ID controls. Big Brother has gone green.
As his admirers will expect, Crace writes gloriously about Lennie's jazz, an art in which "Each note is imminent with failure. But there is no retreat." Crucially, he first met Francine at a gig in Brighton where, forsaken by a stranded band, he valiantly improvised a solo set based on nursery rhymes. All That Follows sends an artist in the doldrums on a quest to recover his valour: "A jazzman has to hold his nerve." As for the hostage motif, it becomes a nursery-rhyme tune itself, around which Crace riffs on mojos lost and found.
Don't go to this book just for the unwinding of its plot, any more than you would listen to Rollins or Coltrane merely for the melody. Its finest passages summon scenes of waiting and hiatus: the interim space of "a charged hush, the sort of breath-sucked quiet that often means the sky is jittery and heralding a thunderclap, or shooting stars, or rain".
These wandering variations keep us suspended above the main theme, postponing resolution. If jazz of that kind annoys you, this novel might as well. Yet this intimate chamber piece finds a fugitive, "blue" beauty between the notes of its events. Next time, from Crace, expect thunder.
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