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Book overview

The last in a series of domestic comedies set in and around the cathedral town of Eyot, all featuring the Mountjoys, a family of seemingly numberless cousins: spiky, funny, and ever-so-slightly bonkers (the books and the characters both). I wish there were more of them, but as this last one was written in 1999, that doesn t look likely. The stories occupy an odd temporal lacuna: although they were written in the 1990s, they re obviously set a great deal earlier - 'Children of Chance' has a feel of being as early as the 1960s and, from comments the characters let drop from time to time (a 22-year-old remembers events from 1956, a 50-year-old was married just after the Second World War), the rest of the timeline takes place in the 1970s. Certainly parts of 'Unaccustomed Spirits' take place in a decidedly Cold War Hungary. I wonder whether the first book was actually originally drafted in the 1960s and then vamped up for publication years later; that might also account for its writing style being rather less sophisticated than the later books.[return][return]Because Eyot Cathedral has a strong musical heritage, and the city hosts a major music festival, music plays a strong supporting role throughout the books, almost to the point where it becomes a character in its own right. Sylvester, who appears in every book, is a world-renowned cellist; Quinta, the underage unmarried mother who takes centre stage in 'Divine Comedy' forges a somewhat improbable career for herself as a lutenier, lives with a composer with the equally improbable name of Alban Praetorius, and her daughter, Phoebe, is taken under Sylvester s wing as a budding cellist, while her best friend Lydia plays the double bass; Justinia, in 'Unholy Harmonies' is a gifted singer whose husband wants her to settle down and be a wife and mother &and so on. (The names? Ah, yes, the names. I know. Nowhere else, other than perhaps in an episode of 'Spartacus', will you find a conversation between characters called Faustina and Titus. But that s just the posh folk: the domestics aren t quite called Mrs Overall, but it does come awfully close.)[return][return]Adding to the aforementioned bonkersness of it all, there is the occasional supernatural element drifting through the storylines. Sylvester s housekeeper Lily has a knack of knowing things well before they happen; 'Unaccustomed Spirits' adds a couple of rather delightful ghosts to the cast, 'Brotherly Love' features a blocked writer who conjures up an all-too-physical muse, while 'Unholy Harmonies' brings us a Russian danceur who is not only slumming as a dancing telegram but also appears to be channelling Dionysus and ends up leading most of the village into a Bacchanal.[return][return]I haven t even mentioned Valdemar, the Mountjoy who s either the focal point of or the catalyst for a number of the books. He s a fascinating character: romantic, reckless and ruthless, an utter bastard for most of the series but, at the same time, honest and insightful except where his own behaviour is concerned.[return][return]Romances, for the most part, these are not: the stories are as likely to end (or begin) with a jilting at the altar or a divorce as with a happy-ever-after and, although Justinia does leave her husband and head for London with an admirer, it s not to be with him; it s to study singing professionally. Far more important! They are, however, romantic; a delightful read, and a real treasure.

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