I’ve admired Sue Gee for a long time and was a fan of her work long before she became a Salt author. When I received my copy of Trio, her latest novel, I therefore knew I was in for a treat, though even I could not have predicted how magnificent a treat it would be!
Trio covers the lives of three generations, but asymmetrically. Its central characters are Steven Coulter and Margot, his second wife, whom he meets and falls in love with eighteen months after his first wife, Margaret, has died of tuberculosis. The Steven / Margaret / Margot story is set mainly in the latter half of the 1930s, when the Second World War is looming and the Spanish Civil War has already begun, but it isn’t one of the myriad novels whose subject is primarily how the war and its aftermath affected ordinary lives: there is a little of that, but mainly in the context of how engaging in warfare may be a choice, a buffer used by one of those ordinary lives against personal distress. The childhood and young adulthood of the middle generation, that of Steven and Margot’s children, is not described directly: the final part of the novel is devoted to Steven’s son’s first lonely Christmas after his wife’s death, and his feelings for his sister, children and grandchildren. This is set more or less in the present.
The real subjects of Trio are love, sex, grief and death: huge, primeval topics, and ones which most authors struggle to write about convincingly, let alone eloquently. ‘Bad’ sex scenes in fiction are, of course, notorious and even otherwise very accomplished authors are sometimes guilty of inadvertently creating scenes that are memorable only for their risibility. But Gee is more than equal to this task: the love scenes between both Steven and Margaret and Steven and Margot are tender and moving. Gee really comes into her own, however, when she is conveying grief: the sharpness of Steven’s terrible, raw young man’s grief when Margaret dies; the more muted, sad and resigned sorrow of Geoffrey Coulter, Steven’s son, when he is widowed as an old man.
Threading its way through each of the big themes of the novel, music is an ever-present force. On one level, the trio referred to in the title are Margot and the other two musicians with whom she regularly plays in concerts and recitals. Gee’s accounts of music and the effect that it has on its listeners are magnificent: Steven comes from a totally non-musical family, and his awakening upon listening to the trio to the power and pleasures of music are masterfully evoked. In Gee’s hands, music promotes love, awakens desire, assuages grief and dignifies death – even a shocking and violent death. Music sustains Geoffrey in his sadness, and he is proud that his granddaughter, Evie, also shows signs of musical talent.
I could write more about Trio, but I’m aware of the dangers of slipping into ‘spoiler’ territory. One last observation: I’m too young to remember the 1930s or the 1940s, but I’m sure that Gee’s portrayal of them is as authentic as I know her depiction of the present to be. And I love her evocation of the Northumberland landscape, which acts as both a beautiful and a terrible presence in this novel.
Last Saturday, I helped my husband to prepare his allotment, for sowing with a new cycle of plants and seeds. He needed some assistance, because during the long winter months the shelter that he and his partner-in-grime had built over it last year to foil the pigeons (it succeeded) had collapsed under the weight of an unexpectedly heavy fall of snow. Carefully, we untied some dozens of pieces of binder twine and rolled up long lengths of chicken wire to ready them for the grand rebuilding. Improved design, he says, will help to prevent the same happening again; we shall see!
Partly because they were pretty difficult to reach amongst the debris of broken timbers and chicken wire, and partly because we’d had some over-supply, leftovers of last year’s crop remained, a brassica graveyard. Eight or so stalks of blackening Brussels sprouts tilted in a broken rank towards the boundary fence, a row of wounded soldiers at their last gasp. Several misshapen kohl rabi poked from the earth like a giantess’s bunions.
Some heads of red cabbage, severed from their stalks, lay on the ground, broken and rotting, their outer layers turned into slimy winding sheets. Their lone companion, still growing, had grown a new rosette of small heads after the original cabbage had been cut, twisting itself into three dark petalled shapes, a macabre bouquet paying last respects at the funeral. Dried sticks of weed poked through the soil, which glistened unhealthily with a scattering of glossy green clumps of over-wintered willowherb and expanding whorls of nipplewort.
Overhead, the sun shone with real warmth. New purple buds were swelling on the tangle of hawthorn twigs in the gateway. The bees in the adjoining apiary were flying, great tits were two-toning in the hedge and a lone hare loped away over the meadow. Spring was on its way, but I don’t recollect having ever been so vividly aware of the round of decay that must precede renewal.
Oddly, I found it comforting: it was as it should be. And somehow it made me feel more philosophical about death. Each plant and creature has its time. Then comes the Grim Reaper. It is only seemly. And there is something wonderful about the soil which is both grave and nursery; now it is manured and turned, I am reminded of the beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘shining-shot furls’ of ploughed land, from which will spring new life.