I’ve enjoyed several of Sue Gee’s novels since reading The Hours of the Night many years ago. That’s still my favourite, though this one, her latest, comes close, and shares similar ingredients: rural life, loss and recovery, the tentative beginnings of a new relationship, music, social conscience.
The setting here is Northumberland in the three years before the outbreak of the second world war. Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, loses his wife to tuberculosis, and stays on, bereft and alone, in the remote moorland cottage that was their home. A charismatic colleage, Frank Embleton, from a far more affluent background, draws Steven into his social circle: the trio of the title, comprising Frank’s beautiful sister Diana, who plays the cello; violinist George, who nurtures a secret love; and aristocratic Margot, the pianist, who has lived all her life at Hepplewick Hall, which she now shares with her widowed father. Knowing little about music, Steven is drawn in, finding an appreciation that helps him through his grief and attracts him to Margot. The two have little in common apart from bereavement – Margot’s mother died when she was a little girl – but the attraction is mutual. Sue Gee excels at portraying the first flare of attraction, its growth into love and the flashes of insight, understanding and tension that pass between people who know each other well, as these musicians do.
Her writing about music will have you searching YouTube or your CD collection so that you can hear what Steven hears, as he begins to understand “that the whole piece was a conversation between their instruments, a move from question to answer, from gentle enquiry to passionate response … when he watched Margot’s slender body half lift from the stool in a fast, dramatic passage, as if she couldn’t stop herself, he began to wonder at what it must do to you, to play like this. And at who you must be, to want to make it your life.”
Always in the background, becoming more evident as the months pass, is the threat of war: Guernica, the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss. Steven worries about Frank, who is secretive about his political activities, and about the adolescent boys he teaches who will soon be of age for military service. The school scenes are particularly well done, showing us Steven’s regard for the boys, his diligence, the staffroom exchanges and the solace he finds in work. Sue Gee also has a wonderfully easy way of making readers aware of weather, the seasons and the natural landscape, contrasting the wild moorland scenery with the elegant landscaping of the grounds at Hepplewick Hall, with its cedar tree and ha-ha.
A coda, a short Book Two which brings us into the present and the viewpoint of Steven’s son, now elderly, comes as a jolt, and introduces maybe too many new characters, but is a clever way of leapfrogging the war while showing us what happened in the lives of the main players, then and since. And, just as importantly, to the places.
I suspect that some readers will find Sue Gee’s careful evocation of character, relationships and social settings rather too slow; others will find it poignant and engrossing, as I did.