Book Review - Trio

Set in Northumberland during the austere interwar years, and depicting a country on the brink of change, Sue Gee’s latest novel could not be more timely. It transports us to a gentler, more innocent time. Despite the hardship faced by many of Gee’s characters, they are motivated by a sense of duty and compassion for others.

Trio opens in the wake of the 1936 Jarrow March with the death from tuberculosis of schoolteacher Steven Coulter’s beloved wife Margaret. He is numb with grief but soldiers on, finding comfort in the routine of work at Kirkhoughton Boys School. His charges are often unruly but most recognise the importance of acquiring knowledge in order to forge a better life for themselves. Memories of the Somme continue to loom over this small rural town and a sense of impending tragedy comes with the realisation that many will end up as cannon fodder, just as their fathers had before them.

Here poverty and wealth rub uncomfortably against one another, inequality is rife and a new order is brewing: “with men out of work and women scraping by; with the great march from Jarrow to London”, while conflict simmers away in Europe, “civil war in Spain, Hitler and Franco in alliance, women and children blown to pieces in a market square.” Set against this political ferment is the genteel world of Hepplewick Hall where a piano trio rehearse. The amateur musicians regularly perform at the Hall, in local country houses and village churches.

In an attempt to alleviate Steven’s suffering, his chivalrous, flamboyant colleague Frank Embleton introduces him to the trio. Steven unwittingly falls for Frank’s beloved Margot, a talented pianist from a well-to-do family. Margot is no stranger to bereavement, having lost her mother at an early age. Other than their shared pain, however, they have little in common (not least their different backgrounds). Gee suggests redemption comes through music – for Margot it is a passion, for Steven a revelation. Reflecting on the trio’s performance of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2 in E flat major, he realises: “the whole piece was a conversation between their instruments, a move from question to answer, from gentle enquiry to passionate response.”

As well as demonstrating a love of chamber music, Gee is a terrific observer of the natural world – daily life follows the changing seasons, the repetition of nature’s rhythms offer solace – and evokes many of the senses in her descriptions: “Spring came with the sheep trotting up the track again, the farmer touching his cap…lambs racing and butting and crying as the flock spread out in the sun. The thorn tree was thick with white blossom, the tough moorland grass and the bracken greened up, the heather was a purple haze. Then came the call of the curlew.”

But war, as it always does, disrupts this serenity, and personal tragedy threatens the fragile equilibrium of the trio. The final part of this well-crafted novel is set in the present, where we learn the fates of Gee’s characters and are reminded of how the past affects and shapes the present. Gee brilliantly recreates a bygone era and delivers a tender meditation on love and loss.

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