You can't fault Will Buckingham for unusual stories. His previous novel, Cargo Fever
, was set around a semi-imaginary island near contemporary Indonesia so of course his new novel, The Descent of the Lyre
, is set about as far away from Indonesia as possible, in the mountains of Bulgaria in the early 19th Century. It draws on the myth of Orpheus but to my mind is more interesting as a tale of betrayal and adventure. It starts with a young man's bride being brutally snatched from him on the eve of his wedding (by the Turks, then occupying Bulgaria) and ends, well, I won't say how it ends. But the journey taken by our young man, Ivan Gelski, brings him into the heart of sophisticated Paris at a time when the guitar was conquering the known world.
The world of the mountains and woods of Bulgaria is completely convincing; simple and honourable at times, but also violent and vengeful. That happiness and misery are triggered by the cut and thrust of fate is chillingly described and both in Bulgaria and elsewhere in the book there are moments of complete savagery. And in contrast to this savagery there is music, the music of the `Spanish' or classical guitar, still seen as something mysterious and possible intemperate by polite society. And here, real life comes into play, with the guitarist and composer Ferdernand Sor. His life would be source enough for a novel but he is called upon to play only a modest, although vital, role here. He is also all that is left of our story when it is finished, unless, that is, you believe the accounts still told in certain parts of Bulgaria of a man with healing powers, returned from Paris.
And as well as having a really fascinating story, throwing off all sorts of questions and ideas, is also extremely well written. You feel the cold, you taste the raw spirit, you fear the guns and knives and you believe in the love, the lost-love, that haunts Ivan Gelski. I read it in a weekend because each of its short chapters just asked to be read immediately. The learning - of which I suspect there is much - is lightly worn, but you come away with a sense of an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time. It is a really lovely, glorious piece of fiction. Do get the hardback if you can, as it is a very pleasing artefact in its own right.