At the heart of this book is a poignant story of a great violinist, Jelly d'Aranyi, or "An Artist of the Floating World"( to borrow from Ishiguro) trying to come to terms with an ever alienating society and the world as it is rapidly approaching another Great War. Although the main plot is the search for a Schumann violin concerto, it seems almost secondary, an effect rather than a cause.
As Jelly is getting older she laments times past, with a brilliantly successful career surrounded by famous musicians and close friends who admire her. She is anxious about a decline in her career, bitterly remarking that were she a man she would be at the height of her power at this age; her close friends are scattered around the country, one battling old age and another taken by a horrible illness. Still grieving for the man she loved who died in the First World War, she thinks it's inconceivable that another war should be coming so soon. Jelly is deeply unsettled by the anti-foreigner mood around her, despite living in this country for a long time she starts to feel like an unwelcome outsider.
Faced with the task of dealing with the rapid changes around her, Jelly finds herself " losing the ground" as if being swept away by a wave of change. At last she is forced to re-evaluate her whole existence. Her quest to find the Schumann Concerto becomes her only way out, a way to keep the spirits of all the people she loved as well as herself alive. The music becomes her salvation.
I consider it a sign of how far we have come as a society (although arguably we still have a lot further to go) when we take for granted the difficulties of having a career as a woman. The impossibility of having both a family as well as being a successful musician doesn't cross our mind immediately nowadays, which is a stark contrast to 1930s. Deciding on being a concert musician meant Jelly and many other female artists including the legendary Myra Hess chose to not settle down. Everywhere else in the novel the author devotes time on highlighting "the plight" of women, one such example being the inability of women to study at certain high institutions as they weren't allowed. The subject of woman's condition so well brought up in this book was an extra bonus to me. Elsewhere the undoubtedly realistic backdrop of the book is beautifully crafted; the general mood of anxiety and alarm as of the uncertainty of the near future is daunting, making one somewhat queasy. This book will be of great interest not only to musicians but a general reader looking for a gripping read, because that is exactly what this is. Highly recommended.