Friday, October 10, 2008 by Wendy
King Christian IV was the King of both Denmark and Norway from 1588 until his death in 1648. Known as a reformer, King Christian IV implemented a series of domestic reforms, built new fortresses, and initiated a policy of overseas trade during his nearly 60 years as Monarch. The year 1629 ushered in a period of financial distress, and domestic unhappiness when the King discovered his second wife - Kirsten Munk - was sustaining an extramarital affair with a German officer. King Christian IV ultimately expelled Kirsten from Copenhagen to live out her days in Jutland - the western, continental part of Denmark which separates the North Sea from the Kattegat and Baltic Sea.
It is this part of King Christian IV’s reign (1629 - 1630) which serves as the backdrop to Rose Tremain’s Whitbread/Costa Award winning novel Music and Silence. This lush story is told from multiple points of view. The manipulative and seductive Kirsten Munk is introduced through her journal entries.
Well, for my thirtieth birthday I have been given a new Looking glass which I thought I would adore. I thought I would dote upon this new Glass of mine. But there is an error in it, an undoubted fault in its silvering, so that the wicked object makes me look fat. I have sent for a hammer. -From Music and Silence, page 7-
Her self-centered musings create a character who is perhaps one of the most intriguing villains in literature…one who is blackly humorous, yet ultimately sad.
The reader also meets Peter Claire - an English lutenist who arrives in Denmark to become part of the royal orchestra - only to become smitten with Kirsten’s female companion Emilia. Throughout the narrative, Tremain intersperses the life of the King in his youth (and his friendship with Bror Brorson which haunts him), with his dreams, turmoils and fears of adulthood.
In Tremain’s competent hands, this historical novel becomes a symphony of romantic twists and turns, and a saga which encompasses all the excesses and political intrigue of royal life in seventeenth century Europe. Tremain explores such complex themes as order vs. chaos, love vs. hate, dreams vs. reality, and betrayal vs. loyalty - all through the metaphor of music and silence. The novel’s thematic elements are connected beautifully to setting, as when King Christian journeys to Norway to spearhead the development of a silver mine during the harsh winter months. He gazes at a waterfall - the Isfoss - which has frozen solid, and imagines the tiny crystals of ice forming in the roaring water.
They acquire thickness, length and weight. The water is transparent clay, moulding them, layer upon layer, and as the layers accumulate, the roar of the river has become muffled. The human ear has to strain to hear it. And then, in the space of a single night, it falls silent. -From Music and Silence, page 107-
It is the beauty of these kinds of images which transform Tremain’s novel from an historical piece of fiction into an extraordinary work of literature. Music and Silence is exceptionally wrought - a delicious tale which I highly recommend.