Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2007.
Back in January a reader of this blog emailed me to recommend Claire Kilroy‘s Tenderwire. “I have recommended this book to so many different types of people, young and old, male and female, and I haven’t heard one negative review of it,” she wrote. “In fact, friends of friends of friends and distant relatives of friends have gone out of their way to tell me how much they liked it.”
I’m always partial to a good recommendation, so I looked this one up on Amazon: it ticked several boxes for me, including great reviews and a mention on the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award long list. The fact that it was written by an Irish author and set in New York sealed the deal: I “mooched” a copy from BookMooch as soon as I could hunt one out.
Last week, looking for something that would entertain me during my lunch hour, I extracted the book from my reading queue and took it to work with me. I rarely take full lunch hours these days, often scoffing a sandwich at my desk, but last Wednesday the sun was shining and so I sat outside and cracked open this book. Hooked from the start, the hour whizzed by and for the rest of the day I couldn’t wait to get back to the story of Eva Tyne, an Irish violinist living and working in New York, who goes on a rather dangerous mission to buy a rare violin of dubious provenance.
Admittedly, this might not sound like a gripping story, but the first-person narrative, written in a kind of cruel, edgy and unstable voice, is the type that gets in your head and throws your world a little off kilter. You want to keep turning the pages if only to shake-off that quietly menacing monologue that so disturbs you.
Part thriller, part psychological drama, Tenderwire is set in a rather unfamiliar place in which the criminal underworld collides with the refined world of classical music. And Eva, our narrator, gets caught up in it, naively expecting that if she buys a valuable violin — the Magdalena Stradivarius, dating from the 17th Century — from a dodgy Russian she met in a bar there will be no repercussions and no payback.
If I bought the violin, would somebody come knocking on my door, claiming rightful ownership? Not if it had been stolen from somebody who’d stolen it themselves. And not if it had been lost; not if it had been seized from the Russian aristocracy a century ago and found its way into the hands of someone who didn’t fully grasp what it was. Just another fiddle in a country full of fiddles. It was feasible. Highly unlikely, but feasible.
There’d been any number of wars during the violin’s lifetime, huge savage wars spilling right across Europe, in which everything had been uprooted and lost. Napoleonic wars, world wars, cold wars, a plethora of revolutions. Things had come loose from their moorings; paintings, jewels, even people. And the difference with paintings, jewels and people was that they were identifiable by sight. A violin wasn’t. Not unless it had distinctive ornamentation. Magdalena had no distinctive ornamentation. At least, not that I could recall. I racked my brains, but remembered no markings at all. Only dirt, grime, the formidably all ruing patina of neglect. It was just possible that I might get away with this.
Obviously, the whole point of reading this book is to find out whether Eva does, indeed, get away with it. It’s an alluring premise, because it’s hard to believe that someone so fragile and mentally unstable as Eva would have the audacity to stump up $650,000 in cash to buy it. Even more intriguing when you know that it does not come with any papers and therefore cannot be authenticated. Is she merely being duped into buying a fake and staking her whole career on a possible copy?
This is a rollicking good read, with plenty of red herrings, including love affairs and concert performances, to keep you on tenterhooks throughout. There’s a great cast of characters in supporting roles to give the story real depth, and the prose style, clipped and restrained, is imbued with enough paranoia to make the reader look over their own shoulders once or twice.
And for those who doubt they know enough about violins to warrant reading the book, there’s plenty of background information on the rich history of violin-making to give you an understanding and appreciation of the very object that Eva becomes so passionate and obsessive about. It’s an intriguing insight into a world I knew very little about.
I can see why Tenderwire is one of those books you end up recommending to others — it’s an intelligent page-turner, highly engaging and with a terrific, satisfying, ending to boot. I very much enjoyed it.