A compact gem: The Courage Consort by Michel Faber

How’s this for a compelling first sentence…

On the day the good news arrived, Catherine spent her first few waking hours toying with the idea of jumping out the window of her apartment.

Perfect, right? I defy you not to keep on reading after that. And coming in at just 121 pages, I defy you not to keep on reading this brilliant novella right through in just one sitting (as I did). I love Michel Faber’s work, which is why I was so sad, and probably still a little in denial, about his decision to stop writing novels after just three full-length books.

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The Courage Consort is about Catherine – teetering as she is on the verge of a breakdown – and the four other members of a capella vocal ensemble The Courage Consort, and covers the two weeks they spend rehearsing together in a remote Belgian chateau. They are preparing a challenging avant-garde classical piece, Partitum Mutante, which will be performed at the Benelux Contemporary Music Festival alongside a video installation. (Incidentally, the scene in which that accompanying video is finally revealed to them is one of the funniest things I’ve read recently…)

There’s something about the way Faber captures people in just a few spare, deft strokes. And he’s also excellent at writing about musicians, music and sound in a way that brought to mind Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, one of my favourite books ever.

This book manages to be so many things in such a short space of time. There’s real darkness and a solar plexus punch of an ending that I didn’t see coming. But there’s also sharp wit and proper laugh-out-loud humour. And somehow the whole thing wraps itself up with a feeling of overall warmth and hope that is at odds with events that have gone before.

The most beautifully complete piece of work I’ve read in a while.

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