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The world of big brother

The Music Room, by William Fiennes

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

The Music Room William Fiennes

Picador, pp.215, 14.99

If the past is a foreign country, who governs it? Who has the right, particularly in dealing with his parents and siblings, to patent very private memories, and sell them to the public? These are questions that generally nag at the readers of family memoirs, and it is a measure of the quality of The Music Room that it does not provoke them. William Fiennes is driven neither by self-indulgence nor a desire to rub salt into old wounds, but by an urge to comprehend and dignify the past, in its joys and its sorrows; to give it shape and meaning.

This is, essentially, a prequel to The Snow Geese, Fiennes’s highly-acclaimed, prize-winning first book in which he recorded a journey, both physical and spiritual, undertaken in his late twenties. The Music Room reaches further into his past, exploring his childhood and adolescence in the moated Oxfordshire castle in which his forebears have lived since the 14th century. Without a whiff of snobbery, he conjures up an Arcadian infancy. In springtime, he soars on his swing up into the branches of the copper beech, where ‘the young leaves were translucent and looked like the skins of red grapes stretched on fish bones’. In summer, a local school comes to perform Twelfth Night in the garden, and the moat becomes the sea around Illyria. At night, in bed, he listens to his mother practising her viola, ‘each scale like someone coming up the stairs, then going down them again on second thoughts’. Fiennes has a poet’s gift for creating images that are fresh and original, and yet so natural as to seem almost inevitable. His narrative glides from the past to the present tense, as his memories absorb him.

But in this idyll, there is anguish. Fiennes’s elder brother, Thomas, was killed in an accident two years before Fiennes was born. And his eldest brother, Richard, 11 years his senior, suffered from epilepsy. During an early attack, the frontal lobes of his brain were damaged. As Fiennes grows, flourishes, learns to ride his bike, fish, make friends, Richard’s world becomes increasingly circumscribed. Sedated by anti-convulsants, he sleeps much of the day. Awake, his mood is volatile, swinging unpredictably from a rare, endearing sweetness to frustration, anger and violence. He lashes out at his family with expressions picked up at the bleak institution where he spends most of his days: ‘You and whose army?’ ‘Shut your face or I’ll shut it for you!’. Fiennes has a keen ear for voices and dialogue, and when he recalls Richard’s angry exchanges with his parents, the pages bristle with tension. Sometimes, the verbal attacks become physical.

Fiennes is concerned not just to remember but to understand his brother’s condition. Running through the book, interleaved with his recollections, is a study of epilepsy through the centuries, from the ancient Greeks, who believed that seizures were caused by demons, to the present day. The research is deep, wide-ranging and gripping.

Yet Richard Fiennes defies medical and scientific pigeonholing. Hand-in-hand with what the doctors call his ‘executive dysfunction’ goes extraordinary tenderness, gift, wit and love of life. His likes to play with puns, to coin new words. When low, he explains that he is ‘just feeling rather downput’; perkier, he quips, ‘If somebody wanted a bodyguard and a gardner, couldn’t they just have a bodyguardner?’. He tells his mother that, when he sings Handel’s ‘Silent Worship’, he thinks of her:

Did you not hear my lady

Go down the garden singing?

All this, Fiennes relates with lyrical restraint, avoiding mawkishness, creating instead a tribute that is part threnody, part celebration, and that provokes profound questions about the limits, and limitations, of free will, the extent to which our personalities are our own, the tension between the beauty and the vulnerability of the human heart.

Richard Fiennes died aged 41, during a night seizure.

‘We are rich in what we have lost’, his mother said after his death —

she wasn’t sure where the words had come from, but she kept repeating them, hearing his name in them: ‘We are rich …’

On finishing this book, we are rich in what we have gained.

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