Close Reading Snapshot: A Duet for Invisible Strings by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

I picked up this novella on a whim after seeing it on this Twitter list of under-sung novellas. It’s a lightly-magical contemporary romance between two older women who play in the same orchestra: Heledd is a violinist, Rosemary is the conductor she’s been in love with for ages. I won’t give away too much more, because one of the pleasures of reading Duet was watching it unfold in tone and genre with an amplitude that far exceeded expectations for such a short read. Here’s the cover and blurb:

Heledd, leader of the first violins, has been in love with her irrepressible conductor Rosemary for years.

A secret from her past means she must hide how she feels, but the time they spend working and performing together is enough for Heledd – until a near miss with a speeding car forces her to rethink everything she thought she knew.

When the orchestra is mysteriously summoned to perform in the Welsh village where Heledd grew up – a village she hasn’t returned to in decades – the life she’s made for herself begins to unravel, and her secrets threaten to escape.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website.

The passage I’ve chosen takes place a few days after Heledd has gone to Rosemary’s home to have pizza and hear her practice a harp piece: it’s an understated and private moment of longing that sets readers up nicely for the concert where Rosemary gives a rare public harp performance:

In the concert hall with its vaulted ceiling, a few days after the pizza and the harp lesson, Heledd kept remembering that night. The memory tangled with the music Rosemary was playing now–an entirely different piece, on a different harp, in a different place, but Heledd was still mesmerised by the way Rosemary made the music fill up the room. Near the climax of the piece there were four bars of silence, and Heledd thought not a single person in the room breathed. When Rosemary’s fingers touched the strings again, the whole place seemed to exhale as one. It made Heledd giddy.

What strikes me about this passage is the way it conveys the meaning and emotion of Rosemary’s music through senses other than sound, which are more accessible to the reader. Rather than telling us what the harp piece sounds like, the passage conveys how it occupies space (filling an entire high-ceilinged concert hall), time (blending together Heledd and Rosemary’s private harp lesson with a public concert), and most importantly, silence: a breathless, collective silence. The power of the music is conveyed precisely by what happens when it’s not audible, involving the readers in parts of the performance they can access more easily than trying to imagine how it sounds.

A particular strength of this novella is its ability to make use of absences, gaps, and silences. There is, of course, the metaphorical silence of Heledd’s unrequited and unconfessed pining for Rosemary throughout decades of friendship. But more than that, Duet leaves a lot of detail unspoken, particularly around Heledd’s dark secret and its fantasy elements. While these absences might frustrate some readers, I found the sparing use of detail to be beautifully constructed. Like Rosemary’s music, the text brings readers into its silences, using them to create a sense of shared wonder and mystery.

I recommend picking up this novella for:

  • A delicate blending of contemporary and fantasy romance, that layers the two genres for Maximum Pining.
  • Two professionally accomplished heroines, both over the age of 40.
  • One particularly gorgeous metaphor for falling in love without realizing it: “It hadn’t happened in a flash of lightning … It was more like she’d been walking along a path, a quiet path on a sunny day, not noticing the gradual upward slope until finally she’d looked around her and found that she was on the edge of a cliff and about to walk right off”
  • Aching, eerie atmosphere.
  • A literal one-sitting read, at 84 pages.

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