I’ve always been fond of the precocious girl narrator. Ramona, Anne, Sally, Harriet – there are so many truly excellent ones out there, and all are universally loved for being funny, determined, and deliciously, wonderfully real and relatable. Anne constantly gets into “scrapes.” Ramona is a pest. And in Caro Soles’ Dancing with Chairs in the Music House, I met Vanessa Dudley-Morris, ten years old and feisty, with a vivid inner life at odds with the sheltered drabness of her real life. Vanessa immediately reminded me of the above characters: she’s a bit of a know-it-all but coddled; anxious to please; deliberately cruel at times but quick to recognize her wrongs; extremely nosy; choosy about her friends and past-times; and desperate for anything with a glimmer of excitement. Vanessa is, in short, the ten-year-old girl Soles wrote her to be. And she is wonderful.
The novel opens with the Dudley-Morris family moving to a new boarding house, in post-World War II. Through Vanessa’s eyes, we learn the family has fallen on hard times since World War I. Vanessa’s father returned home from the war, forever changed and damaged by the war. He appears to be suffering from some form of PTSD, and Vanessa explains he occasionally disappears to the veterans’ hospital to rest and get better from a particularly low period. Vanessa’s mother is the rock of the family, picking up jobs in early childhood education and watching “difficult children” to earn some money. Jonathan, Vanessa’s older brother is in high school, and an accomplished piano player, with the family hope that he will become a great concert pianist. Vanessa, the youngest, suffers from severe astigmatism, and consequently, learns at home with her mother, in an effort to protect her sight. Both Jonathan and Vanessa are adopted, Vanessa tells us, dismissing it as not terribly important, just a fact of life.
Their new home is a set of rooms in a boarding house which Vanessa dubs the Music House: Jonathan’s music teacher, Rona Layne, also lives there, and it seems like it’ll be the perfect home for them: accepting of Jonathan’s piano, accepting of children, and Vanessa delights in exploring the house and eavesdropping on the neighbours. It’s her private kingdom and she wanders nearly every inch over the course of the book, eventually running into Brian Pierce one day, when she decides to climb out onto the roof. Brian is older, a musician like Jonathan, and lives in the Music House with his mother. Mysterious and talented, Brian appeared out of nowhere with his mother, and enchants Vanessa. She longs to be friends with him, and he obliges her, sharing a few secrets and getting her to pass notes for him.
Through the eyes and thoughts of a ten-year-old girl, Soles tackles poverty, secrets, disability, and tragedy. Dancing with Chairs in the Music House is a short but packed novel, full of intrigue and innocence. Vanessa is plucky and bright, and absorbed in her own world: the real drama in the Music House escapes her full understanding, while the reader is able to pick up on the scenes Vanessa doesn’t understand. Additionally, I was so pleased to have a narrator with visual impairment: Vanessa’s life is shaped by her vision loss and the opinions of her doctors, but she doesn’t consider it all that important. Having been a ten-year-old girl with visual impairment, this filled me with joy. Soles captures that acceptance and dismissal of disability in a way that I recognized on a personal level, and while it makes me sad that I was an adult before finding this kind of narrator, I’m so glad Vanessa exists.
Dancing with Chairs in the Music House is charming, quirky, and relatable. The writing is sharp and evocative, allowing you to sink fully into 1940s Toronto, roaming the halls of the Music House with Vanessa.
Caro Soles’s novels include mysteries, erotica, gay lit, science fiction and the occasional bit of dark fantasy. She received the Derrick Murdoch Award from the Crime Writers of Canada and has been short-listed for the Lambda Literary Award, the Aurora Award, and the Stoker Award. Caro lives in Toronto, loves dachshunds, books, opera and ballet, not necessarily in that order.
- Publisher : Inanna Poetry & Fiction Series (Nov. 19 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 260 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771338059
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771338059
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Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.