Book Review: The Courage Consort by Michel Faber


With his elegant prose and perceptive imagination, the bestselling author of The Crimson Petal and the White creates a unique, self-contained world, where the perennial human drama plays out in all its passion and ambiguity. In these acclaimed novellas, Michel Faber takes on the interior world of inventively crafted characters. “The Courage Consort” tells of an a capella vocal ensemble sequestered in a Belgian chateau to rehearse a monstrously complicated new piece. But competing artistic temperaments and sexual needs create as much discordance as the avant-garde music.

This is a short, tight, novella, with nary a spare word used.

It is the story of a 5 piece acapella group, who have agreed to try out a new piece written by a very rich (and somewhat “otherworldy” mentally) German and get two weeks in a Belgian Château to practise. The novella starts with Catherine – married to the group’s founder Roger Courage  – coming out the other side of psychological problems, which include depression and a hinted-at suicide attempt the year before.

Catherine sat at the kitchen bench, staring abstractedly into Ben’s porridge bowl. It was so clean and shiny it might have been licked, though she imagined she would have noticed if that were the case. She herself tended to half-eat food and then forget about it. Roger didn’t like that for some reason, so, back home in London, she’d taken to hiding her food as soon as she lost her appetite for it, in whatever nook or receptacle was closest to hand. I’ll finish this later, she’d tell herself, but then the world would turn, turn, turn. Days, weeks later, ossified bagels would fall out of coat pockets, furry yoghurts would peep out of the jewellery drawer, liquefying bananas would lie like corpses inside the coffins of her shoes.

They meet up at the Château and there are soon tensions (both mental and sexual) underlying the daily practising. Dagmar – the other female in the group, who has brought her baby son Axel with her – loves biking and mountaineering, and soon begins an unlikely friendship with Catherine simply by going out biking daily and inviting Catherine to come with her. Daily exercise, with someone who doesnt seem to judge her or put her under pressure (plus no longer taking the anti depressants) goes much to changing Catherine during the book, to the point where casual acquaintances dont recognise her at first.

Catherine’s insomnia makes her thing she hears human like cries in the woods at night  Dagmar says she doesnt hear them. Catherine goes out walking one night, spending all night in the wood and comes back the following morning in a dream like state; what happened over night and whether the screams were real are never revealed, which some readers find frustrating, but if the novella is read as a traditional Gothic novel (The Mysteries of Udolpho, or Jane Austen’s wind up of “Northanger Abbey”) then these situations rarely are.

Catherine is the most rounded of the characters in the book, with the others being a bit one dimensional, but that is in part because Catherine has spent so long in her own world she hasnt been interested in anyone else, so only knows what she knows. She grows the most, since that at the beginning she doesnt even know what time of day it is, at the end she is making decisions for the group and is able to put her foot down to her husband

A question I ask when reading short stories and novellas: Could the story still stand if it was longer? This one I dont know, maybe adding in a little character development of the other 4 singers, expanding on the sexual tension outside of Roger and Catherine, but there is little more that I would add.



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