London, 1933. Dabbling in the once-fashionable “glass game” – a Ouija board – the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi is amazed to receive a message supposedly from the spirit of the great composer Robert Schumann, asking her to find and play his long-suppressed violin concerto.
Ghost Variations is created from real people and true events which occurred during their lives; history dramatised into a rich and enchanting narrative.
Jelly d’Arányi, the central character, is a renowned Hungarian violinist, living in 1930s London with her sister, Adila and her family. Jelly has been the muse for several famous composers and is dedicated to her music, to the exclusion of her personal life, especially since she lost the man she loved at the Battle of the Somme during WWI. The sisters have lived in London since Jelly was sixteen and now as she approaches her fortieth birthday, Jelly is aware she is (unfairly) considered past her prime as a musician.
Adila’s close friend, Baron Erik Palmstierna, is involved in aspects of psychic research and spiritualism, and often play what they call ‘the glass game’, a form of the Ouija board. It was during one of these sessions, with Adila, Jelly (against her better judgement) and her assistant, Anna, that a message came through about a lost violin concerto by Robert Schumann.
If this piece of insanity was to be believed, she had received a message from the spirit of Robert Schumann, or his…representative. Telling her that a violin concerto he had written was lying unplayed somewhere and he wanted her to save it. Astonishing – an extraordinary demand, an overwhelming responsibility – that Schumann should choose her. But supposing it was a trick of some kind, a deception, or worse? If something truly supernatural had taken place, how could she be sure this communication was benevolent and not demonic?
This is an extraordinary and vividly written story when, as the author says, the truth is stranger than fiction. That the concerto should come to light in such a fashion is incredible. Jelly is finding the changes, within herself and the distant rumblings in Europe, difficult to come to terms with. How can there be another war, and so soon? Finding the concerto becomes Jelly’s quest and her lifeline.
Jelly is a very sympathetic and engaging character, not without flaws, but warm-hearted and genuine. Her kindness is shown in her behaviour toward Anna and the free cathedral concerts she performed to allow music and pleasure into the lives of those less fortunate. Jessica Duchen brings the characters to life and captures the atmosphere of the era perfectly. I like the realistic way Jelly’s life as a touring musician is portrayed and her intense enthusiasm for her craft despite the hardships.
The story is told mostly from Jelly’s perspective in the third person, with several segments from Ulli Schultheiss, a music publisher from Germany (one of the few fictional characters) who falls under Jelly’s spell during his stay in London. Persuaded to help in the liberation of the concerto, Ulli returns to Germany only to be met with a wall of bureaucracy, followed by interference by the Third Reich who wish to use the manuscript for their own purposes.
There are several subjects in this intriguing story which give pause for thought, not least the restrictions placed on women; the choice between career or family and the fact women were not allowed to attend certain of the better institutes of learning. The impending Nazi threat and the resulting fascism and growing prejudice against Jews is represented in all its horror. At its heart a touching, sensitively told story creating a wonderful read.
I chose to read and review Ghost Variations for Rosie Amber’s book review team, based on a digital copy from the author.
About Jessica Duchen
Jessica was born in London. She first tried to write a novel at the age of 12 and found much encouragement from a distinguished author and a literary agent. After studying at Cambridge, she worked as an editor in music publishing and magazines for ten years.
Her latest novel, Ghost Variations, is based on a true incident in the 1930s: the bizarre rediscovery of the long-suppressed Schumann Violin Concerto. “This is a hugely atmospheric and thought-provoking book featuring fascinating characters… It evokes a period pregnant with both promise and menace” (Music & Vision Daily).
The earlier novels focus on the tensions and cross-currents between family generations, including a painful exploration of the effects of anorexia (Rites of Spring) and the rearing of a child prodigy (Alicia’s Gift) to the long-term effects of displacement and cultural clashes (Hungarian Dances and Songs of Triumphant Love).
Jessica’s journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, plus numerous music magazines. She gives pre-concert talks at venues including the Wigmore Hall, the Southbank Centre and Symphony Hall Birmingham. Having created concert versions of Alicia’s Gift, Hungarian Dances and Ghost Variations, she often narrates their performances. Her play A Walk through the End of Time, introducing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, has been performed at music festivals in the UK, France and Australia.
Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two cats. She enjoys long walks, cooking, and playing the piano when nobody can hear her.