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February 29, 2012

Book Notes - Margot Livesey - "The Flight of Gemma Hardy"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Margot Livesey's novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a masterfully told contemporary homage to Jane Eyre.

The Dallas Morning News wrote of the book:

"On its own, Gemma Hardy would be a strong, satisfyingly diverting piece of literature. As a companion to Jane Eyre, it’s that, and also a fascinating statement on how far women had advanced in society and status (or hadn’t, as the case may be) in the 100 years between the novels’ time periods. You probably won’t fall in love with Mr. Sinclair, as generations of female readers have done with Mr. Rochester, but you’ll definitely feel emotionally connected to the novel’s spirited and determined heroine."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Margot Livesey's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy:

Where does a novel begin? Sometimes I've been able to date the moment of conception very precisely but in the case of my latest novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I have in some sense been writing the novel since I was nine years old and first read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. But there's a big difference between writing in one's head and on the page and it wasn't until the summer of 2008, after publishing a novel about a long friendship between two women, (The House on Fortune Street) that I found myself sitting down at last to write the story of an orphan, Gemma Hardy, who loses first her parents, then her beloved uncle and is forced to make her own way in 1960s Scotland. I knew the novel would have five parts, each with its own landscape and atmosphere, loves and losses and secret music – the music I heard but not Gemma or the people she meets.

Gemma's earliest years are spent not in Scotland but Iceland - her father is Icelandic – and in thinking about that lonely, volcanic country I spent a good deal of time listening to the Icelandic band Sigur Ros (Victory Rose). The voice of the lead singer, Jonsi Birgisson, has an almost other worldly quality which seems to fit perfectly with the fact that many Icelanders believe in the existence of elves. And Jonsi himself is obsessed with birds and animals. Two evocative songs stand out for me: "Go Do" in which Jonsi insists "You should always know you can do anything," and "Saeglopur" which means lost at sea, or shipwrecked.

Leonard Cohen was performing when I was Gemma's age and is still performing today. I first heard his music when I was working as an au pair in Paris, filled with longing and existential thoughts. Most recently I heard Cohen perform in Boston, still rocking at 75. I love the way his songs capture the endless conflict between our desire for permanence and our need for change, both of which Gemma experiences to an acute degree. I'll pick "Suzanne" because I've always thought it was cool that the words were so clear and so incomprehensible.

Most of the novel is set in Scotland, where I grew up, but much of it was written in Cambridge, MA where I currently live. Music was a wonderful method of conjuring the landscapes I was trying to evoke. Gemma escapes her hateful aunt to attend boarding school and then she escapes the boarding school to become an au pair on the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland. "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" is a traditional Orkney folk song about a woman who doesn't know the identity of her son's father. Then a man appears claiming paternity. "I am a man on the land," he says. "I am a silkie (or seal) in the Sea." He predicts sad events for the woman, their son and himself. Maddy Prior's version, with waves crashing ashore in the background, is particularly atmospheric and reminds me of the bleak beauty of the Orkneys.

I have never been as homeless in Scotland as Gemma but I have been homeless in North America and that was very helpful in writing her story. The first summer I came here, I read Kerouac's On The Road, and hitchhiked around. This was the 1970s but the anthems of the ‘60s were still playing everywhere including Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." I knew little about guns or cocaine or prison but I did know about loneliness and fear and having no one to turn to as I stood by the giant highways of America hoping that some courteous stranger would give me a ride.

I think it was John Updike who said that the only kind of love worth writing about is ambivalent love. I'm not sure I agree, but Gemma, like most people in my life, doesn't always have the feelings she claims, or wishes, to experience. I love how John Proulx's "I Get Along Without You Very Well" captures the way in which we try to control our feelings. Proulx's voice is so beautifully controlled as he depicts his attempt to flee his love and his subsequent failure.

Lastly I have to invoke Rachel Goswell's "Coastline" – "This coastline's like a long lost friend/ Keeping me grounded once again." This song perfectly captures the way in which the sea brings together disparate places and cultures. When I go to the beach here in Massachusetts I always think that the waves are traveling all the way to Scotland, via Iceland, and that the seals I occasionally see are carrying messages. Like many of us, my heroine, Gemma, can never return to her first idealized home but perhaps she can make a new one, and that new one, as Goswell suggests, may be as much about people as about place.

Margot Livesey and The Flight of Gemma Hardy links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Bookreporter review
Chicagoist review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
The Daily Beast review
Dallas Morning News review
Full Stop review
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
New York Times review
The Ram review
Richmond Times-Dispatch review
Washington Post review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The House on Fortune Street
The Millions essays by the author
National Post profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists