January 2024 • Fiction
A blue-haired concert pianist, Elsa M. Anderson, walks off stage in the Golden Hall in Vienna. She’s gone off script and played a few minutes of her own composition, because her fingers refused to play what the conductor of the orchestra, and the many people who bought a ticket to witness her immense talent in person, so desperately wanted her to play — Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2.
Three weeks after that evening — considered catastrophic by onlookers and fellow professional musicians — we find her in Athens, where she watches a young woman who seems to be her doppelgänger, complete with the identical fitted green trench coat, buy a pair (the last pair!) of mechanical horses, objects Elsa also wants to have. The woman leaves behind her hat, which Elsa takes, and wears from then on as some strange form of retribution.
Elsa is intrigued by this woman, an elusive figure, who she seems to run into once or thrice more as she herself floats around Europe, teaching the children of wealthy parents to play the piano, trying to come to terms with who she is in the wake of her professional disaster. Her travels take her from Athens to London, from London to Paris, and then on to Sardinia, where her adoptive father lives, who trained her to become a concert pianist from an early age.
August Blue very much reads like those travels, the writing meandering like a piece of music could. Her prose ebbs and flows, the storyline stops and starts (like the backdrop of the pandemic lockdowns it is set against), as Levy weaves in conversations with Elsa’s doppelgänger, repeating the sentences they utter and injecting them between paragraphs, leaving her reader never entirely sure who they’re coming from, whether this is Elsa speaking, or her doppelgänger, or — aren't they one and the same?
I'll admit that, on the surface, the novel’s strokes sometimes feel a bit broad, and the writing can come across as a little on-the-nose. Many a time, though, Levy's brilliance surfaces, and she draws up sentences — sometimes dreamlike, sometimes incredibly crisp — that pull her reader in with a few seemingly simple flourishes, as if gracefully running her fingers along the keys of a piano.
The mood she manages to depict repeatedly reminded me of The Lost Daughter, a film featuring Olivia Colman that I think would pair well with this novel. As always, and as I've come to expect from Deborah Levy since reading her Living Autobiography series, she vividly depicts beautiful scenes, textures, tastes and smells so that, long after finishing the book, its outline lingers — like the wobbly edges of a hallucination, or the trace of a doppelgänger in the corner of one's eye.
August Blue by Deborah Levy
Published by Hamish Hamilton in 2023
Buy the book
One book recommendation, once per month.
Book #12 • January 2024