When Monika Keller and her husband Jack went to Bombay they were looking for a charity to support but found more than they’d expected. Laid back Irish-American Jack and ultra-organised German Monika were an unlikely couple – she controlled and logical, he a more instinctive and emotional person – and Bombay hit them both in very different ways. When they found a group of young children from the slums playing by the side of the road, both fell in love with the ring-leader, little Jyothi, and decided they should try to adopt her and take her back to Germany and fill the gap in their childless lives. Such things should be difficult – after all you can’t just buy children even if their parents are poor even in India. But such things are no barrier in Sharon Maas’ novel The Speech of Angels as she conveniently deals with getting rid of the parents and clearing the way for the Kellers to whisk Jyothi off to Germany where they work to develop her natural talent for music and turn her into a star violinist. The sweet, dirty little girl they first met changes into a lonely child, a love-struck and petulant teenager, and eventually an international diva. But for all her fame and musical success, Jyothi can’t completely shake off her past and wants to be loved for who she really is and not the calm, sophisticated woman on the stage. If any of that feels like too much plot, it’s really no more than the back cover ‘blurb’ or Amazon synopsis will tell a potential buyer.
I had great memories of Sharon Maas’ novel ‘Of Marriageable Age’ which I read many years ago and which I recalled as a wonderful novel. I had high hopes of this one but was mostly very disappointed by The Speech of Angels. It promises a lot from its beautiful cover picture of a woman in a red sari standing in the shallows of a river with the Taj Mahal in the distance to the intriguing synopsis on the back cover. The trouble is it’s all a mirage. The closest the cast get to the Taj is a day trip to Agra whilst Jyothi’s still a child and the cover fails to reveal that this is rather more ‘Barbara Taylor Bradford’ than the ‘ Great Indian Novel’. India serves only a meagre role as a convenient place where one might find a poor child and a place for hiding out in ashrams when the stress of the modern world gets too much.
The book starts promisingly – young Jyothi accompanying her mother to the big house in their village to deliver yesterday’s laundry and collect today’s. Her family are dhobis (washer-men and washer-women) going back many generations but their poor but honest life is to come to an abrupt end – the family in the big house have bought a washing machine and no longer need the dhobis. Jyothi’s family move to Bombay, lured by tales her father has heard about the amazing dhobi ghats, the place where the dhobiwallahs wash and press the laundry of the mega-city in specially designed pits, with places to dry the laundry without having to find a convenient bus to drape it on. All this is in the prologue which sets the book rolling along nicely – sadly once we hit the main story, it soon started to annoy me.
The early chapters worried me a little – the all too convenient disposal of the parental barriers to adoption were hard to believe but when Maas pulls off the same trick later in the book in order to move things along, I was starting to think that she really ought to try a bit harder to build plots that didn’t depend so much on what seemed like ‘bad karma’. Jyothi’s talent is described as being something that comes to her so easily that it’s like breathing, that the music is somehow inside her bursting to be released through the bow and strings of her violin. We are told to believe that she needs only to hear a piece of music once to be able to recreate it perfectly. She can’t read music and she’s very dyslexic so her violin playing has to compensate for her other problems.
About half way through the book the ‘voice’ changes abruptly. We lose the third person narrative at the end of Part 2 and in Part 3, Jyothi becomes the narrator, telling the rest of the story from her point of view. The biggest problem about the novel is the lack of a character to care about or to empathise with. Mother Monika is too cold, too ‘Germanic’, father Jack is too flighty, too laid back but simultaneously (and less believably) increasingly controlling. Love interest ‘Dean’ is a nice lad but a nasty grown up, and Jyothi herself – especially after her transition into ‘Jade’ – is not a likeable character either. I would just make one exception to my near total condemnation of the plot and say that the denouement that occurs a few pages from the end took me so totally by surprise that it sent a cold shiver of delight through me. I really didn’t see it coming.
In The Speech of Angels we have a host of clichés more at home between the covers of a block buster. The rags to riches to ‘who am I and is this really what I want?’ story line is straight out of a Jeffrey Archer or Barbara Taylor Bradford bestseller. If you yearn for something that’s got rather more to say about the nature of ‘gifts’ and natural talent than this ‘hey presto, she’s just amazingly good at playing the violin’ or if you want a book with something REAL to say about poverty in India, or about the displacement of people taken from one country and one class and parachuted into something totally different, then this isn’t the one for you.
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