The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr’s delightful, fascinating debut novel is the fictional memoir of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, puffer of exotic substances. It was one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015.

Lena went from a background of playing traditional instruments to becoming a modern musician, being the first theremin player of the twentieth century, an intriguing instrument played through movement but without the musicians hands actually touching the instrument.

Lena Gaunt

From its opening pages where we experience Lena’s daily routine, her strong pull to the sea, The memory of music in her bones, it becomes a book that grows on you until it becomes unputdownable.

“I move my arms in wide arcs in front of me, pushing water out to the sides and back again. I can feel the stretch in my shoulders, the tendons tense and twist. Bubbles form up my arms and, trapped in the tiny pale hairs, tickling like the bead in champagne. Moving my fingers in the water effects tiny changes in the waves that effect bigger movements. Action at a distance; just like playing the theremin.”

Lena Gaunt was an only child, born in Singapore, spending a solitary childhood in the tropics before being sent “back Home” her parents called it, alone to Australia where her Uncle deposited her at a private boarding school, at four-years of age. She became closer to her bachelor Uncle Valentine than her parents, who were distant, not just physically, but emotionally and who died before any change in their relationship might manifest.

Lena played the piano, but her first true love was the cello, one of her few regrets, that in taking up the theremin, the instrument she would become most well-known for, she stopped playing the cello.

After an unsuccessful visit to her father in Malacca (Malaysia) at 18, one where he had hoped to groom her into the demure, music playing, after dinner entertainment for his friends, a night walk into the seedier parts of the town, where she stumbles across her Uncle and her father’s business partner in an opium den, has her sent back to Australia, willingly and to the beginning of a life she will create anew.

“It had taken little for me to disappoint my father, but in truth, he too had disappointed me. Father, home, family; empty words, without meaning for me.”

She is introduced to and practices cello with Madame Vita Petrova, the eccentric, vodka and coffee drinking Russian with a unique ear and skill for the cello, not found in the more conservative establishments. It is her first encounter with the artistic and musical misfits, a bohemian community with whom she is more comfortable and will become part of.

It is through Madame Petrova she hears of the Professor, the man who introduces her to the instrument, the Music’s Most Modern Instrument, she will play for the world, the theremin.

“played by the waving of hands, like conducting an orchestra. It is played without the player touching it, not with a bow, nor by blowing. It is neither wind nor string, brass nor percussion.”

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

In Sydney, she meets Beatrix Carmichael, a painter/artist twice her age who becomes her constant companion, a part of who she is, one who really sees her. As Beatrix paints the two sides of the Sydney Harbour Bridge coming together on her canvases, from the verandah of their home, it feels so real, and yet there is a sense of the end of an era, as the subject becomes less intriguing on completion.

“We celebrated it, this joining of the city, the coming together, and yet Trix mourned it too. Since her return from Europe, since her arrival in Sydney, she’d been painting the growing bridge in parts, separate; in fragmented shapes formed of light and colour and sun and music.”

The novel follows Lena’s long, engaging life, and each turn of events that takes her away from the familiar until finally she returns to the place that most feels like home, where she plays one last performance and will meet the young filmmaker Mo, who provokes her into completing the life story she began to record many years before.

As the filmmaker questions Lena Gaunt about her life before the performance she had just given (in her eighties), the narrative flashes back to her past, her isolated childhood, boarding school, separation from family, visits by Uncle Valentine, the piano, the cello, musical influences, her life with Beatrix, making her remember it all, even the painful memories she had hoped never to re-encounter.

It is a fascinating story, a mix of fact and fiction, one that Tracy Farr succeeds in bringing alive through the places Lena visits and lives in, the people we encounter, the music that is made, the images that are painted and the heartbreaking losses she must sustain.

16 thoughts on “The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

    • It certainly never felt like any of those adjectives and it doesn’t read like the telling of a life, it is set in her latter years as she makes this one last performance and has a certain amount of intrigue as the young filmmaker tries to convince her to reveal more of her story, their conversations prompting her to remember certain events, so the retelling isn’t straight forward, we are lead into aspects of her life, as certain emotions trigger the recollection, it’s more of a jigsaw puzzle, one that is most enjoyable to witness as it takes shape.

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    • Not all lives are intriguing enough to become the subject of a riveting book, however when there are sufficient unique elements, as there with Lena Gaunt, they become well worth writing and reading about. Her life was all the more fascinating for the era she lived in, it’s a great read, highly recommended.

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  1. After seeing it on your blog yesterday, I’ve already added it to my list, but now I’m wondering if there is any indication in the book as to what is fact and what parts have been fictionalized?

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    • It appears as if Lena ia fictitious, but inspired by the Lithuanian theremin player Clara Blackmore and the locations often inspired by the author’s imagination and experiences. I think she pulls from her own family history as well. It was difficult to find out, there’s not yet much discussion of the historical fact. Kind of disappointed to learn she wasn’t real. But it’s a fantastic novel all the same.

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  2. It sounds like some of William Boyd’s books. He adopts the same approach in both his recent ‘Sweet Caress’ and in the earlier, ‘Any Human Heart’. It can be very effective if the author manages to pull it off and the reviews I am seeing for this novel suggest that Farr probably has. Another one for the library list.

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    • I’ve heard good things about Any Human Heart. I really love historical fiction that brings real characters from a far off time to life, with as much respect for fact as possible, like Sandra Gulland’s magnificent portrayal of Josephine Bonaparte in her trilogy. She wrote it as journal entries and letters and with a sense of profound loyalty to the memory of her. Sadly, in this novel, it appears Lena is not a real character, but one inspired in part by the renowned theremin player Clara Rockmore.

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  3. That’s a really interesting question Naomi and I was intrigued to find that out after reading, as it was so believable. I found out a few things from interviews, the artworks mentioned were inspired by a couple of known NZ and Australian authors, I’ve seen images of the paintings of the half constructed Sydney Harbour Bridge, but I’m not entirely sure about the characters.

    Having just listened to a radio interview, it appears that Lena Gaunt doesn’t exist, but is in part inspired by world renowned theremin player Clara Rockmore.

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  4. Nice to see an Australian author featured here, Claire😉 I heard very good things about this book from Lisa at ANzLitLovers and have had it on my wishlist for awhile. Have you read Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, which won the Giller Prize in 2014? It’s a fictionalised account of Lev Sergeyevich Termen’s life: he’s the Russian chap who invented the theramin…

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  5. Pingback: Top Reads 2015 | Word by Word

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