Review: Music & Silence, by Rose Tremain

In Music and Silence, Rose Tremain uses a fictional character to explore the life of King Christian IV of Denmark.  Peter Claire leaves England for Copenhagen in 1629, to play his lute in the king’s orchestra.  The king is in his 50s, and married to his second wife, Kirsten Munk.  She has borne him 12 children, and is now refusing his advances (can you blame her?).  Peter falls in love with Emilia Tilsen, one of Kirsten’s women.  Through these four characters, Tremain paints a vivid picture of Danish life nearly four hundred years ago.

The book started off promising.  The story is presented from alternating points of view:  third-person narratives about Christian, Peter, or Emilia are interspersed with “excerpts” from Kirsten’s personal papers.  Christian is portrayed as a hard-drinking and not very effective leader, struggling to deal with Denmark’s economic woes.  He has grand dreams but fails to execute. Tremain’s prose reminds us how difficult day-to-day existence really was.  Communication channels were slow; sometimes mail was not delivered because it went down in a sinking ship.  Illness was rampant, and ailments we consider trivial today, could kill in those times.

But about halfway through this book my interest began to flag, for two reasons:

  • There were too many subplots.  It felt like Tremain started out to write a story of King Christian & Kirsten, as seen through the eyes of Peter & Emilia, but quickly ran out of material.  So she introduced a huge cast of characters with their own ancillary stories: the musicians in the orchestra, Emilia’s family in Jutland, Christian’s wealthy mother, Kirsten’s conniving mother, Christian’s boyhood friend Bror, Peter’s former mistress, Peter’s sister and her fiancé, a failed mining expedition and its aftermath, and on and on and on …  Some of these subplots contributed significantly to the larger story, others seemed like filler.
  • The female characters were little more than objects.  This began with Kirsten, who as the classic self-centered, conniving, promiscuous bitch transformed this novel from historical fiction to soap opera.  Kirsten repeatedly used her body to get what she wanted.  If she were the only one, I could have accepted it.  But too many of the women were portrayed in this way, from Peter’s former mistress to Emilia’s stepmother.  And then Emilia herself was a milquetoast, caring for animals and smiling demurely as she floated around in some kind of dream world.  I know there is little written history of women during this time period, but I’ve read other works of historical fiction that imagine their lives in much more creative ways.

I’ve enjoyed several other books by Rose Tremain, but Music and Silence was just OK.