A small girl called Dido — lively, engaging and convincingly intelligent — is at the centre of Patrick Gale’s intriguing and impressive novel. A shadow is cast over the child’s life from the start. Since her mother’s death in a climbing accident, which might have been suicide, she has lived with her aunt, Eliza, who is haunted by fears that the mother’s medical problems (at this stage, the terrible details are only hinted at) might have been passed on to the child. Gale writes about the complex Eliza with shrewdness and sympathy. She dearly loves her niece, left to her care as a baby, but she is lonely, short of money and lives in a dreary London council flat; painfully honest, she acknowledges how much she misses her time as an Oxford student researching Elizabethan music. When the precociously sensitive Dido asks when she was last truly happy, Eliza recalls, nostalgically and guiltily, life before her sister’s death “thrust motherhood” on her.

Their lives are complicated by the presence of Giles, who shared a flat with Eliza in Oxford — he fell in love with her, he admits now, when he saw her with the baby Dido. He still claims, when it suits him, a paternal role in the child’s life. A professional singer, a counter-tenor who has parlayed his minor talent into a moderately successful career, he is helped by his ambitious wife, an agent “good at telling people they were wonderful”. Gale views the fashionable couple with a sardonically amused detachment that darkens, disconcertingly, when we glimpse Giles’s self-centred, inappropriately sensual relationship with the child.

The novel is perhaps over-long, and sometimes seems too elaborately and self-consciously plotted. The London story is interrupted, confusingly at first, by chapters detailing the life of another unhappy character: a Cornishman called Pearce who, after his father’s death (probably suicide), has reluctantly taken over the family farm and spends lonely evenings calling up pornographic websites. Pearce’s eventual meeting with Dido and Eliza seems at once predictable and contrived.

But Gale always writes knowledgeably and entertainingly about music, whether in Giles’s career or Eliza’s research, which is, to her surprise, revived by a visit to a madrigal group in Cornwall. His greatest strength lies in his sensitive evocation of those transient, often indefinable states that reveal the truth about people’s deepest desires and discontents. He explores, with tenderness and understanding, the unexpected feelings that grow between Eliza and Pearce, and offers a memorable study of a child forced cruelly, even tragically, to grow up much too soon.

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