Sex and Stravinsky

Sex and Stravinsky, by Barbara Trapido, Bloomsbury £18.99, 320 pages, FT Bookshop price: £15.19

In Barbara Trapido’s sixth novel, Sex and Stravinsky, there is something for everyone: intellectuals, glamazons, freedom fighters, hippies, distressed gentlefolk, abused servants, bizarre French exchange students, poets and teenage girls. Its action spans the globe, the narrative as confident in Bristol as it is in South Africa, Australia or Milan. Its sphere of reference is equally wide, from the Stravinsky of the title via Picasso to co-dependency manuals, home-crafts galore and Chelsea buns.

Sex and Stravinsky takes to heart the maxim that a novel must not just tell the story of one life, for there is a huge cast of characters, whose fates intersect and separate and reconnect over decades. It is a roomy, loosely plotted book in which the reader sort of swims and occasionally there is a sense of lack of direction rescued by one too many coincidences, or a feeling that a character’s development has been sacrificed in order to render a bigger world picture.

At the core of the novel is Australian superwoman Caroline for whom happiness derives from difficulties overcome. Triumphing over every human situation, apart from her appalling relationship with her exploitative mother, she is an odd mixture of high-powered artistic resilience and cowering child. Her mime-teacher husband Josh and their daughter Zoe, who is wrapped up in self-punishing adolescent pursuits, are in awe of Caroline, the kind of woman who can transform a double-decker bus into a wonderful home at the drop of a hat.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast of Africa, Josh’s first love Hattie writes ballet stories in her ancestral home, still haunted by the cruelty of her parents and memories of her debauched brother James. No longer impressed by her too-good-to-be-true husband and wearied by her tiresome teenage daughter, Hattie is ripe for development when Josh comes back into her life.

A complex web of shared history connects these families in ways even they don’t understand. The power and lure of the past shimmers from every page, but family history is shown to be a harsh task-master.

Susie Boyt is the author of ‘My Judy Garland Life’ (Virago)

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