Music in the Dark by Sally Magnusson

This is the third novel by Scottish author Sally Magnusson and although I had a few problems with her first two – The Sealwoman’s Gift, the story of an Icelandic woman sold into slavery in Algeria, and The Ninth Child, about the construction of the Loch Katrine Waterworks – I still wanted to read this one because it sounded so interesting.

It begins in 1884 in a tenement in Rutherglen, a town near Glasgow, where the widowed Jamesina Bain is taking in a new lodger. The lodger is a man, newly arrived from America, where he has lived for many years. At first he has no idea who the Widow Bain is, but as he and Jamesina spend more time together, they discover that they have a shared past – they both lived through the forced eviction of Greenyards in Strathcarron.

The eviction was part of the Highland Clearances, the period when landowners in Scotland removed tenants from their estates so the land could be used for more profitable purposes – which, in the case of Greenyards, meant sheep farming. The clearances of Greenyards in 1854 and nearby Glencalvie a few years earlier, were particularly shocking, for reasons I won’t go into here as the novel will probably have more impact if you don’t already know what happened.

Sally Magnusson doesn’t delve too deeply into the politics surrounding the clearances or the reasons behind them – although Jamesina and her friends believe it was due to the Celtic people being considered inferior – and she acknowledges in her author’s note that it’s a very complex subject. Instead, she concentrates on exploring the long-term effects of the clearances, physically, emotionally and mentally, on the evicted people.

The novel is written from the perspectives of both Jamesina and her lodger, moving between the two as well as jumping backwards and forwards in time between 1884 and 1854. This structure is ultimately quite rewarding as things do eventually fall into place and we come to understand what happened during the Greenyards eviction and the sequence of events that sent Jamesina to Rutherglen and her lodger to America. However, it also means that the first half of the novel is slightly confusing and lacks focus, something that isn’t helped by the style in which Jamesina’s sections are written – often descending into a jumble of thoughts, word association and stream of consciousness. There was a reason for that style, which I understood later on, but it didn’t make this an easy book for me to get into.

I found this book very evocative of time and place, whether I was reading about Jamesina’s childhood in Greenyards or her life in the Rutherglen tenement, taking in laundry to earn a living and sleeping in the ‘kitchen bed’ to keep the bedroom available for lodgers. Magnusson also incorporates lots of other interesting issues, such as the healing power of music, the devastating impact of dementia and the joys of education. I found it very sad that the adult Jamesina, who had been such a bright child and was being taught Latin by the local minister, questions the point in being educated if you’re only going to be leading a life of drudgery.

I have deliberately not provided the name of Jamesina’s lodger, as we don’t immediately know who he is or how he fits into her life and I thought I would leave you to make that discovery for yourself. This is a fascinating novel in many ways and I did enjoy it once I got past the halfway point, which is why I don’t like abandoning books too early!

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 17/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

18 thoughts on “Music in the Dark by Sally Magnusson

  1. margaret21 says:

    I definitely have learnt not to throw in the towel too early, which most of my reading friends seem to disagree with. All the same, 100 – 150 pages is enough. Would this pass that test?

  2. Elle says:

    I’ve only read The Sealwoman’s Gift, but remember being pleasantly surprised by it–Magnusson is a solid historical fiction writer, from what I recall, and she’s chosen an emotive topic here for sure.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, she writes very well and I like the way she chooses topics that haven’t been written about a million times before. If you enjoyed The Sealwoman’s Gift I think you would find this one interesting too.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    Like Margaret I like to give unprepossessing or confusing novels the benefit of the doubt – unless they’re so obviously badly written – in the hopes that any positives will make themselves felt in due course. Sounds like you reaped the rewards here by persisting!

    • Helen says:

      I often wish I could be more ruthless about abandoning books that aren’t working for me, but in this case I’m glad I continued!

    • Helen says:

      This book is very different from The Sealwoman’s Gift so maybe you would like this one better. Having said that, I haven’t really loved any of the three books I’ve read by Magnusson – I think they’re okay, but not great.

  4. Joanne says:

    I’ve got a copy of this I’m hoping to read over summer. I haven’t read her previous novels but thought this one sounded good. I’ll know to persist with it if it seems a bit slow to start with!

  5. Cyberkitten says:

    I picked up a copy of ‘The Sealwoman’s Gift’ a while back because it looked interesting & different. I’m sure that I’ll get around to it *eventually*…! [grin]

    I’m MUCH better at giving books a chance these days. Back in my callow youth I’d give a book no more than 50 pages to interest me before DNFing it. Not sure if I’m more stubborn these days or more forgiving.

  6. FictionFan says:

    I wasn’t impressed by The Sealwoman’s Gift so I’m not sure that I’d be willing to try another, but I’m glad she seems to have steered clear of blaming the English for the Clearances which has become very fashionable among the indy fans these days, despite having little foundation in fact! Have you read The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn? I thought it gave a great picture of the Clearances from the perspective of those Scots who stayed in Scotland and had to find a new way of living. So much Clearances fiction is about those who emigrated.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, she makes it clear in her author’s note that the reasons behind the Clearances were much more complex than just blaming one group of people. I haven’t read The Silver Darlings, but I remember reading your review. I’ll have to give it a try!

  7. conmartin13 says:

    I agree the topic is interesting although almost too heartbreaking to read about . . . It’s like the 18th century expulsion of the Acadians in Nova Scotia, although only about 7,000 were affected.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s a very emotional topic – and as you say, one that has been repeated all over the world at various times. I didn’t love this book due to the writing style, but I did find it very moving.

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