Two of our reviewers loved J.D. Barrett’s debut novel The Secret Recipe for Second Chances. For one of them it was her favourite book of the year. I didn’t get to that one so was interested to try her second book, The Song of Us. I really enjoyed this one.
Zoe is a musical thanatologist, one who ‘plays music to soothe and smooth the journey to death’. This provided many interesting storylines. She had been the harpist in an orchestra, but had a major anxiety attack and hasn’t been able to play publically at that level since.
She is based at a hospital and is in a relationship with Ross, a married man, who also works there. Barrett portrays Zoe’s feelings about the affair with what appears to be the knowledge of one who has been there, as many women have – ‘I’m pretending I’m not waiting but I am waiting phase’, ‘he uplifts you while he breaks your heart’.
She bumps into Sam who she met previously when his son was in hospital. She played to the boy until he died, and the loss of his son caused the breakup of Sam’s marriage. When she sees him again she notices there’s ‘a humility in him that wasn’t there before. It’s a riddle isn’t it – the greatest losses often provide people with the deepest connection to humanity. Maybe it’s an awareness of the fragility of life that gets people to honour it’. They become good friends and the who-will-she-pick is played out well.
Grief is dealt with on many levels, her work in the hospital and the patients there, but she also lost her mother when she was very young. She and her brother Sam then faced a parade of women, who came and went. For her father it was ‘ a bit like reverse parenting; when he has a fight, or a marriage ends, he takes up residence in his old room’, in the house their grandparents left them.
Her handle on loss is clear – ‘when you have loved someone so deeply there is never absolute closure, just an infinite number of goodbyes’; ‘each departure is an honour and a form of heartbreak’.
True love is also portrayed well, reflecting the reality that Zoe is living – ‘How can one day make such an impact on some people’s lives while a lifetime with another can leave barely an impression at all? I guess it’s like music; certain people transcend space, time and rationale and pierce your heart in such a way the moment or two you spent with them becomes the fixed point of the compass of your life’. Music too is her constant, and one in the book.
Barrett makes wry observations about life, which rang true, like – ‘you can talk yourself in circles about staying calm. Keeping it in perspective, distancing yourself from the drama, but once panic and fear take hold it’s like trying to give a drowning man swimming instruction’, and ‘it’s like getting yourself to exercise or go to bed when you’re overtired – what you so desperately need for the quality of your survival can be the hardest thing to give yourself’.
She also gives a good depiction of someone with anxiety, through her breakdown, everyday interactions and her dreams, normalising what is a difficult disorder for many people.
This novel has many layers that are meshed into an entertaining read with great characters, and a satisfying ending.