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Rosemary Allen is 77 this year, so her debut novel is huge encouragement to those who experience creative urges in later life, but don’t feel they dare follow through. (and plans are well advanced for a follow-up to Listening to Brahms).

Allen exploits the familiar novelistic device of running two stories across a historical divide. It’s Christmas 1989, with revolution bursting out across Eastern Europe. At her sister’s vicarage home for the festivities, late-fifties Meg rediscovers a diary from a schoolday trip to post-war Germany during which she fell for Peter – and for the Brahms rhapsody he played so bewitchingly. The cathartic process of working through her ‘betrayal’ by Peter runs parallel to her foreswearing of a lifetime’s chastity in falling head-over-heels (in the 1989 present) for a German-born Brit, Jonathan. At their first meeting he happens to play the self-same Brahms rhapsody.

Vigorous counterpoint to the main tale is provided by the marital travails of family members which of course come to a head at Christmas, spiced by revelations of felony and skirt-chasing. Along the way, Allen (a member of the Bournemouth symphony chorus, incidentally) injects side-references to music of various kinds in a subtle way that colours the narrative attractively without being ostentatious and clubby.

Ultimately, the novel is an essay in the complexities of the range of human relationships on show. Some will find the two main narratives a little less than compelling – but then Allen would doubtless argue that they’re less important than detailing the thoughts, feelings and motives of the various players. I thought I was going to find the prose a shade too four-square, but as a vehicle for the unassuming female lead (writing in the first-person) it gradually made sense. Absorbing rather than invigorating – but none the worse for that.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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