Music and Freedom

I finished the last page of this book less than an hour ago, and I felt the need to review immediately, while I’m still consumed by this engrossing story of Alice Murray. I gave this book a 5-star rating; in my opinion, Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison is a very worthy winner of the Readings Award for New Australian Fiction. I practically inhaled this book, reading cover to cover in three days.

This gripping story moves between two different time periods and two distinct locations (an orange plantation in rural NSW, and the university city of Oxford) as Alice Murray reflects back on the first 73 years of her life. As a young child, her talent for the piano is apparent, and so her mother sends Alice to boarding school in England, where she can access the very best in musical education.  Although she is studious and dedicated, a perpetual homesickness looms over Alice, and she counts the years until she can return to the land of her childhood. As her studies at the Royal College of Music draw to a close, she meets Edward Haywood, an Oxford economics professor. Edward, although complex and aloof, offers Alice what she assumes is a stable future, at a time when her life has been turned upside down.

Alice soon learns that married life is not how she had imagined it to be. Edward is a self-possessed and demanding man, whose own quest for recognition and validation comes at the expense of Alice’s dream to become a concert pianist. It is clear that the darker side of their relationship has been expertly researched by Morrison, and she writes with heart wrenching authenticity about the suffering of women who are trapped in an abusive relationship. The story is narrated in the first person, which gives the sense that Alice is confiding in the reader: it is a brutally honest account of her life.

Woven through the novel is the beautiful description of music: it is used as a metaphor for life, with its varying rhythms, its urge to return ‘home’ to the same note, and in the way that music moves between solo parts and sections played in orchestra with others. Alice writes that music makes her feel more deeply, it connects her to people and places, and it brings about healing and release from emotional pain. I’m sure my years of practising the piano contributed to my love of this book. And although I certainly can’t relate to the talent and expertise of Alice, the references to familiar composers and musical terms definitely enhanced my appreciation of the writing. Yet even if you don’t have a classical musical background, don’t let that put you off. Music and Freedom contains all sorts of references to music – including Cyndi Lauper, Fleetwood Mac and Madonna!

Quite a few times I had to remind myself that this is Morrison’s debut novel. The writing style is so beautiful and easy to read; in fact, she seems a far more experienced author. All of the main characters, and even more minor ones, are developed with such depth and detail that I could vividly imagine each and every one of them. Similarly, the detailed descriptions of elements such as clothing, weather, food and landscape all combine to make this a very rich reading experience. It was a gripping read, which had me snatching precious moments of reading time whenever I could manage it. And it’s always a sign of a good book when I’m reaching the end, and need to slow down to avoid saying goodbye to a much-loved character: Alice Murray will play over in my mind for months and possibly years to come. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next book by Zoe Morrison.

Reviewed by Carmen