Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 384 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the author.
Songs of Blue and Gold is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Best described as a “literary romance” it has all the hallmarks of a great read: lively, engaging characters; an intriguing back story and mystery to unravel; a strong sense of place; and a solid, believable plot. It’s the kind of story you might imagine Maeve Binchy penning if she ditched the fluff for something decidedly more intelligent.
The book tells the story of 30-something Melissa, whose life is slowly falling apart in London. When Elizabeth, her ill mother, thrusts a book called Collected Poems by the famous writer Julian Adie into her hands, she does not understand the significance until she later discovers an inscription by the author:
“To Elizabeth, always remembering Corfu, what could have been and what we must both forget”.
When her mother unexpectedly dies, Melissa embarks on a voyage of discovery — literally and figuratively. Fleeing her own crumbling marriage, she visits Corfu for herself, hoping that some much-needed sun may brighten her outlook on life. But here, in the beautiful horseshoe bay of Kalami, she finds out more about her mother than she could have ever imagined.
It turns out Elizabeth had a clandestine and tumultuous romance almost 40 years earlier with the infamous womaniser that was Julian Adie. And here, at the very heart of the affair, Melissa manages to discover a deadly secret that explains why her mother never mentioned Adie’s name in her presence…
Lawrenson said she wrote the book based on the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”.
Interwoven with this background were his many loves and four marriages. He seemed to pack so many different lives into one! And while he was a comet blazing, what of the women he collided with along the way, I wondered? How did their stories end? And what of those he met, whose lives he changed but who did not even rate a footnote in his biography? Soon I was busy inventing Julian Adie and Elizabeth.
But you don’t need to know anything about Durrell to appreciate this hugely beguiling novel — although I’m sure there is added meaning to be gained if you do.
I particularly enjoyed its exploration of biography and “truth” and how we present different images of ourself to different people. Lawrenson achieves this by breaking up the main narrative with various “texts” on Julian Adie’s life. This includes official biography, Melissa’s own “memoir” and an American academic’s exposé of Adie’s possible involvement in an unexplained death.
But what I liked most about Songs of Blue and Gold — aside from the confident narrative — was the rich, evocative descriptions of Corfu that fill the pages. Here’s one of my favourites:
Every hour seemed to make her eyes open wider, her senses more acute. Each time she walked the tiny main road, effectively barely more than a lane, she noticed more: the powerful scent of jasmine escaping over a wall; bright globes in orange and lemon trees; the violet trumpets of morning glory winding through wire fencing; and everywhere the ancient gnarled olive tree, each composites of several intertwining trunks, some so holed and intricately braided you could see right through them. From the balcony of her apartment, she watched the sun set. The mountains across the water, in a reverse of the morning’s display, burned red and peach, then pink to purple. Isolated wisps of cloud made brushstrokes of black on the evening canvas.
This is a thoughtful, entertaining read, and a much more literary book than the cover image or blurb conveys. I highly recommend it.