Barbara Trapido's golden novel about loss is an Alice in Wonderland for grownups. From its haunting start--"Early on in the morning of my interview, I woke up and saw my dead sister"--to its final, endless irony, The Travelling Hornplayer zips with plot twists and character turns, shocking revelations and desperate reactions. Any attempt at summary is dizzying, but here are a few hints: for three years, Ellen Dent has been devastated by the loss of her younger sister, who had struck famous novelist Jonathan Goldman as having "the pleasing air of one who plans to easily pass through this life, collecting admirers at tennis parties." Nonetheless, Lydia's charmed teenage existence had come to a quick end, courtesy of a car, outside Jonathan's North London flat after his daughter, Stella, turned her away, mistaking her for his mistress, Sonia. Sonia herself will later crop up in the Cotswolds as the temporary lodger of Jonathan's beloved wife--and I won't even begin to unravel Stella's super-disconcerting tale. I will, however, say that the book contains several other matchless, larger-than-life characters and strands, which mesh together into a sparky, tragicomic puzzle.
In Trapido's world all is not what it seems, to put it mildly. She is a gifted comic writer because she knows tragedy is just around every corner. Since 1982 and the publication of her Whitbread-winning novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, her buoyant, allusive roundelays have proved that she has a knack for the ways gifted families work--and the ways they most definitely do not. She is also a brilliant commingler of life and art. Her third novel, Temples of Delight, is an inventive riff on The Magic Flute, while her fourth, Juggling (inexplicably, never published in the U.S.), sets forth a key Trapidian tenet, the superiority of Shakespearean comedy over tragedy: "Survival is admirable. It is more difficult than death, since it takes more energy and guile." The Travelling Hornplayer seems to have been inspired by both Conrad's Heart of Darkness and William Müller's lyrics, "which Schubert, under the cloud of his own recently diagnosed syphilis, managed so brilliantly to layer and elevate into a profound, bombarding symbiosis of love and death." This tantalizing novel is no less layered--though, given her comic genius, elevation isn't exactly Barbara Trapido's style. --Kerry Fried