Weidenfeld & Nicolson
This novel recounts how famous singer Cass Wheeler suddenly disappears from the public limelight and delves into the reasons for her ten year reclusivity with each chapter marked by a song as a spur to her past life.
Delivered as a densely written book of nearly five hundred pages, it is tough going in places but becomes engrossing when the emotions ratchet up as we learn why Cass shunned society like a ‘wounded animal’: the violence of her broken marriage, the disavowal of her by her adored father, the vicar, in his embittered twilight as he rants against his unfaithful wife and blaming Cass for the state in which he is left. But the supreme tragedy in the novel is the death of Cass’s own daughter Anna, a victim of her parents’ unhappy marriage, and it is here that the reader’s sympathy is firmly caught.
Cass was born in 1950 and spent her so-called successful years as a performer in endless roadtrekking across the world to gigs and concerts. She remembers her teenage years as early as1964 when she ingested purple hearts and learned of street-wise girls with fellows ‘rumoured to have gone all the way’. And in the seventies she was the kohl-eyed singer in velvet and silk being offered hash brownies at the post-gig parties.
Barnett encapsulates this period authentically with depth of insight into life on the road and the psychology of human relations. It is quite an achievement for an author born in 1982. She captures brilliantly the unglamorous reality of a nomadic singer spending most of her nights awake ‘watching the unspooling road (interstate, motorway, autobahn, autostrada: each one different, each one exactly the same), and scribbling scraps of lyrics in her notebook’.
Despite all her bestselling songs, however, Cass questions the meaning of success as she reflects on ‘the featureless succession of hotel rooms…the next city; the next town; the day’s ever-changing schedule of commitments replacing the free, formless landscapes of her dreams’. And the more she travels the more her breakdown looms as her nerves, which she sees as ‘formless shadows’, try to block her from performing on the stage.
The sensitive Cass understands and empathises with the people she meets as they try to become famous singers: plumbers and butchers and young married performers with children and mortgagees, who believed all that separated them from the lives they had dreamed of ‘was a hair’s breadth of luck and hard work’.
The theme of the book, despite the tragedies, is ultimately the passing of time in its ‘measured drip-feed…siren-like, issuing its relentless rhythm’. The singer captures the zeitgeist in the Cohen-like questioning of her songs, seeking meaning and life’s answers from the darkness of nights among suitcases and crates illumined by tealights and the lighted tips of joints. It is a seemingly endless, peripatetic existence with the makeup artist applying the heavy foundation to cover the bruises inflicted by Ivor, and the silent-suffering and worn-out Cass longing for a place to call home.
The story picks up dramatically in the final quarter as Cass shares vicariously the pain suffered by her mentally-unhinged daughter. The various strands in the novel eventually gel: Cass remembers her father in better times in one of his sermons enjoining our hearts not to be troubled, and she thinks of her beloved artist Larry’s box cubed white city which she decides will be used as the cover for the forthcoming album of Her Greatest Hits.
The insightful Cass, on witnessing the fickleness of some pampered celebrities sipping champagne while lecturing the world on homelessness, is inspired to write her best song:
Home is a house
Where the windows are open
Where music is playing
And soft words are spoken…
Sometimes you just need a home.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 13/1/18.
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll, a searing story of how 9/11 impacted on an Irish-American family, in paperback and Kindle at
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