The Music Room is an elegiac memoir that interweaves three strands: the narrator's own idyllic childhood in a historic castle in the Midlands; a portrait of his elder brother, Richard, who suffers from severe epilepsy and brain damage; and a medical history of the understanding of epilepsy and brain neurological function. None of which might sound particularly riveting, but Fiennes has won prizes before and this book shows why.
Not a word is out of place (without any kind of conscious `literariness') as he navigates his way through this story. And what stood out most of all for me was the very ordinariness of the family: despite their home and life-style, despite Richard's illness, at heart this is a story about the deep, unquestioning, patient and tolerant love that makes the family what it is. The narrator says that he always understood that Richard was `different' from other brothers but he never fantasises an ideal Richard. The brother he has is who he is, and that is accepted.
The portrait of Richard himself is both harrowing and immensely tender: his illness is so bad that he is sent away to an epilepsy treatment centre during the week and only comes home at weekends. Gentle and somehow innocent, he slides into a pattern of violence, aggression, anger that takes it toll on everyone around him, not least those who love him best.
Fiennes writes with a very light touch: nothing is over-stated, everything restrained and spoken with dignity and respect. Images of Richard's father leaning against the house to draw strength from its centuries-old stone; his mother washing her adult son after he has wet the bed again, are offset by shimmering pictures of Richard holding an injured bird in his huge hands, and his triumphant recital of a remembered poem at his birthday party.
Ultimately this is a compassionate and very humane book, and one imbued with a kind of love not often celebrated in literature. Highly recommended.