"Music and Silence," by Rose Tremain. Farrar, Straus Giroux. 485 pages. $25.
Set in 17th century Denmark, "Music and Silence," English writer Rose Tremain's richly imagined seventh novel, is enlivened by three horrific villainesses -- campy, over-the-top monsters of the sort one does not expect to find in literary fiction, but rather in a grudge-bearing child's biography of a movie-star parent.
Kirsten Munk, mistress to King Christian IV of Denmark, may be the worst: a lust-consumed adulteress who hates her children and whose self-involved monologues, which Tremain writes in the first person, are comic masterpieces. Christian's mother, the Dowager Queen Sophie, is a close second: a greedy hag who would rather see Denmark go broke and her son go mad than grant him access to her stash of gold.
Finally, there is Magdelena, stepmother to Emilia, Kirsten's lady-in-waiting. A mere peasant, Magdelena has less wherewithal to be hateful, but manages significant damage on a small budget: fornicating with two stepsons, abusing a third, and driving her stepdaughter into service with Kirsten.
The novel, which was short-listed for England's prestigious Whitbread Award, opens in 1629, when Peter Claire, a pretty-boy lutenist from England, arrives at the Danish Court. Claire has enough ticks and conflicts to qualify as a character, but he is also very much a symbol. Music, in Tremain's novel, is an emblem of good -- a soothing principle, beyond words, that embodies light and transcendence. And Claire, whom King Christian calls "Angel," is synonymous with his music.
Tremain invests autism and dyslexia with a similar symbolic value. They are not handicaps, but perceptual anomalies, and the lives of Tremain's good characters are enriched by contact with possessors of these conditions. Predictably, the villainesses loathe music and abuse cripples -- contributing in different ways to the death of a dyslexic boy and the torture of an autistic one. Despite their wicked handiwork, they are, however, more compelling than the book's goody-two-shoes types.
Kirsten, who connives and copulates her way through Denmark, is Tremain's most riveting character. She articulates the dark, selfish thoughts that everyone possesses but tries to keep hidden, railing against babies ("The stench of them is scarcely to be endured, for they are ever spewing out strands of pearly vomit") and in favor of ignorance: "Mere Understanding for its own sake only exhausts the Mind."
Even Kirsten, however, is not pure evil; her badness stems from a sense of scarcity and scars inflicted by her own self-seeking mother: "To have any Joy," Kirsten writes, "we must Steal like Magpies from the Pitiful Store of it."
Tremain's plot has bathetic components, but her inventive language freshens even the most hackneyed developments. Oddly, though, given the precision of its prose, the novel teaches that words cannot be trusted.
Music, which rises above language, and dyslexia, which scrambles it, are emblems of "good." Glibness, found in Kirsten's journal entries, is "evil." Sometimes truth, Tremain suggests, resides not in the lines but between them.
"What versatile things words may be," Peter Claire observes after writing a guarded, keep-your-distance letter to a former mistress. "Within them, can reside other words, nowhere set down and forever invisible to the eye, but having an existence just the same."
M. G. Lord wrote "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll." Formerly a columnist and syndicated political cartoonist, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She is working on a history of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.