The Music Room by Willaim Fiennes

The Music Room by Willaim Fiennes

An ice bound Wales gave me every opportunity to dip into the bookshelves are here is one gem that is an exceptional read!

The Music Room is, at one level, a portrait of Fiennes’s broad-moated house, the source of his belonging, and his upbringing there until the age of 17 when he leaves to teach in north-east Brazil. “I had a castle to explore whenever I wanted.”

Fiennes’s father regards his family as stewards looking after the house “on behalf of everyone who might one day appreciate it”, and it is their youngest son’s gift to make the castle feel as much our inheritance as it is his. We fish with him for pike. We eavesdrop on guides taking the Women’s Institute along the Groined Passage.  We stand beside him, at the age of five, in the Great Hall watching the Christmas Morecambe and Wise Show being filmed, and Eric Morecambe walking over to greet him, adjusting his spectacles and barking, “Hello! Are you married?”

Left to his own devices, Fiennes often ends up in the music room from which, at night in bed, he hears his mother playing the viola, “each scale like someone coming up the stairs then going down them again on second thoughts”. 

 Increasingly, both weight and tempo are set by his brother Rich, 11 years older and epileptic. Around this figure and his mood swings, the family tread on tiptoe, holding their breath, waiting for an outburst of “unpredictable bolshiness” or “ingenuous warmth”.

As a demonstration of how to write with honesty and discretion about a dysfunctional, out-of-control family member who, eventually, has to be removed from the house, The Music Room is exemplary. In his upbeat moments, Rich brims with tenderness and high spirits. His eyes glitter when flawlessly he recites a Belloc poem. He likes word games and puns, and is a poet in his phrases – exulting in the “heronity” of the moat. You feel the “Bible weight of his hand” on his mother’s shoulder after a victory of his beloved Leeds United. 

Rich’s seizures are terrifying. “I’m shaking to pieces,” he says after one. “Things have been so horrible for me.” But it’s not so much his epilepsy – which he describes in terms of “fizziness” or “ice in his tummy” – as his brain damage and anti-convulsant drugs that send him into another realm that none of the family has any picture of. It’s “as if time is flowing past but not through him, the way a river flows round a boulder”. Writes Fiennes: “He was moated in.”

A 19th-century Fiennes told an architect working on the house that he wanted “grand simplicity, without fandangling”. The phrase, which becomes his father’s motto, is a good description of Fiennes’s prose, which has something of the “unfailing exactitude” of the speeds, curves and shimmies of swifts in The Snow Geese. His only “fandangling” is to be found in one or two of the scientific case histories of epilepsy on which he structures the book, and which become more congested as Rich’s condition degenerates.

Rich is 41 when a night seizure stops his breathing. Fiennes is abroad. “Rich died this morning,” his brother Martin tells him simply. “Come and join us.” He dies before the end of the book, but he survives in this imperishable portrait: Leeds bobble hat on head, pipe in free hand, waiting to sing in the music room on Christmas Day the anthem “Lead me, Lord”. Above all, in the present tense. “We all hold our breath as he breathes in.”

The Music Room must have been extraordinarily difficult to write, to avoid the pitfalls and the toes it needs to avoid, but Fiennes pulls it off. It is a beautiful and fortifying book, even a great one.

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