Parthian, 2014, 273pp
A woman of a certain age sees a much younger man getting off the Irish boat train at Paddington Station and falls in love with him. Being a mercurial character, he goes with her, though later, when she asks him why he loved her, he replies: ‘Because you loved me first.’ And so, in Christine Harrison’s début novel Fig and the Flute Player (republished twenty years after its first appearance under the title Airy Cages), the course is set for a torrid, tempestuous infatuation between Maisie Shergold (academic) and Michael Curran (flute player). In truth, it seems that both are drawn to the supposed glamour of the unknown other, each looking for a spark of some kind. Maisie has separated from her husband Leo because:
We became too friendly. Too easy with each other. There was no friction.
And with one another Maisie and Michael certainly find friction, though whether to good purpose is ultimately unclear. Like the Russian Ikons in the parallel journey which Maisie undertakes in her professional role as an art historian, there are moments in this story which are golden, both for the lovers and for the reader. In her abandonment to passion, Maisie knows that it will be transitory:
Nothing could be grasped and held. Let it go – but not yet. She folded down the edges into sleep so as not to let it go. And in her little pocket of time she slept in Michael’s arms.
Later, when she dreams of her lost lover during a period of estrangement, these dreams:
…left trails like the tail of a comet, left a silence like that after birdsong.
Infatuation is a crazy whirlwind, and so it is appropriate that this story blows the lovers to Brighton, Kiev and then to Ireland, where Maisie discovers things about Michael’s life of which she has to date been (literally) blissfully unaware. Not so the reader. We are given hints of another woman, hear Michael tell someone with whom he is discussing the life-force that ‘we are our past as much as our present.’ The tension is stretched out tantalisingly, so that it is over halfway through the narrative before we find out more about this woman from Michael’s past.
It is on the journey which the lovers take together to Ireland that the language of this novel finds its feet and the pace of the narrative quickens, as in pubs they ‘listened to endless talk’:
…talk about life and death and have you heard this one, now listen, then.
And here it is, in Ireland at Michael’s family home, that Maisie discovers what he was before they met and, devastatingly to her, will continue to be regardless of their relationship. Her response is to flee. Michael writes in pursuit, but Maisie’s energy is devoted to her own pursuit of the mysterious Ikon of the Mother of God of the Steppes. In the end the lovers chance to meet again in St Petersburg, where Maisie is watching the Ikon being restored to its rightful home, and Michael has gone to make music. Although Maisie leaves again, as in all good stories it is left for the reader to decide what will happen ultimately.
Part romance, part thriller, this novel grasps at being more than either, but while Christine Harrison succeeds in sustaining tension and her readers’ attention through the dramatic twists and turns of the story, she does not create a world in which I as a reader was able to immerse myself as fully as Maisie and Michael do in their relationship. I think this is because that relationship remains, for me, too cerebral, too much ‘talked-about’ and the depiction of it perhaps a little too knowing. For instance, as Michael watches Maisie giving a lecture about iconography, we are told his thoughts:
How beautiful and cool and clever she is. She does not try to devour me…
In fairness, infatuation, that bitter-sweet foolish passion, is an alluring but very tricky state to convey, and all credit to Christine Harrison for making the attempt. Michael the flute player is a well-painted character and I can imagine his continuing life after the novel ends. But what of Maisie? There is something in the heart of her character which is missing for me. I do not understand what she wants. Though perhaps she does not know herself… Fair enough that she should literally lose herself in the infatuation – apart from her striking clothes and her academic life – but I would have liked an inkling of what it was she was losing and, at the end, is attempting to reclaim. Although she is surrounded by a supporting cast from her family – mother, daughter, ex-husband and their various partners whose own stories complement the central drama – Maisie remains for me an enigma.
Perhaps the key is in the title of the novel, Fig and the Flute Player. Where, I wondered, especially given the cover illustration which features the fruit, do figs come into this? The true meaning becomes clear in a conversation between the two lovers. Having met just two weeks previously, they talk about how they know and yet do not know one another and agree that:
Perhaps we are figments of the other’s imagination.
Hence Michael calls Maisie his little fig. She, however, would rather be seen by him as a ‘rare beast’. Perhaps the two ideas are bound to clash, and, in the end, like the two characters, to elude one another.