Music and Freedom is a lyrical, heart-wrenching and, ultimately, uplifting novel that moves with an almost musical meter between the episodes of a life – through dark movements to the light.
We meet 70-year-old Alice, alone in her grey, shadowy home, dividing her “dying days” into four stages. Burning her husband’s books. Filing sheet music. Prank-calling her absent son. And playing the same note, a concert A, on the piano. But her lonely refrain – burn, file, call, play, repeat – is interrupted by the eerie sound of another note, echoing her own. Soon this shadow pianist moves through scales and arpeggios, to the movements Alice herself has loved, leaving her to wonder if self-imposed starvation has started to affect her mind.
But the music – from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff – leads Alice, and the reader, through the events that have brought her to this place, the narrative slipping back and forth in time to reveal her childhood on a remote Australian orange orchard in the late 1930s and years of longing at a boarding school in Yorkshire. To a scholarship at London’s Royal College of Music and her fateful romance with an Oxford Economics don. Edward. The man she would marry. And who would rob her of her confidence, liberty and – most damagingly – her music and her son. But now Edward is gone, and the defiant notes have awoken the possibility that life holds yet another movement, one that has the power to resurrect all that she thought was lost.
With an expert’s insight, the author tugs at the cords that bind abused to abuser until they fray, revealing the cycle of slackening and tightening that draws someone into the net of family violence. Lavishing, then withholding affection. Heady compliments, attention and gifts abandoned for constant belittling, isolation, financial control, and escalating physical attacks.
After a punishing practice session to prepare for a concerto Edward has bullied her into performing, Alice contemplates: “I was trying to make it part of myself; I was trying to tie myself to it, in order to free myself from it.” Music becomes a metaphor for her struggle, and visa versa.
But Music and Freedom has a lightness of touch and rhythmic approach to language that belies its at-times dark subject matter. The visceral descriptions urge the reader through the landscape of violence, isolation and despair, to a place of hope and, of course, love.
Zoë Morrison is a Melbourne-based musician, lecturer and academic with a background in research and advocacy around gender inequality and social exclusion. Born in Oberon, NSW, she began her musical career at three, with the violin, before going on to study piano at Adelaide University’s Elder Conservatorium. As a Rhodes Scholar she moved to Oxford, performing at revered concert hall The Holywell Music Room and studying a Doctor of Philosophy. She was College Lecturer and Research Fellow at Oxford and has advised state and national institutions on issues ranging from poverty to sexual assault. Music and Freedom is her first novel.