Barbara Trapido was born and raised in South Africa, and emigrated to England in 1963, when she was twenty-one. She came to writing late in life, publishing her first book when she was in her forties, then producing a string of novels that have gained her critical success, including three nominations for the Whitbread Prize. Sex and Stravinsky is her seventh novel.
It’s important to know Barbara Trapido is not new to the business of writing because although her latest novel, Sex and Stravinsky, is as elegant and accomplished as those that precede it, it contains some narrative choices that might seem curious to those unfamiliar with her work.
This novel begins in England in the 1970s when Josh meets the beautiful and ferociously capable Caroline who’s travelled from Australia to study. Caroline can turn curtains into a frock in no time, and then explain the history of Persian trade routes. She is, as the narrator explains, ‘such an awesome creature, so gaspingly prodigious, that Josh doesn’t notice at first how much she is given to wrong-footing him’. Josh and Caroline tumble into a relationship of unequals. Caroline is too perfect and one wonders why she’s settled for gentle Josh, the son of South African left-wing intellectuals; and Josh, although in awe of Caroline, is secretly pining for the love of his youth, Hattie.
From the beginning, Trapido makes it clear she will not be offering us pedestrian characters – while they are believable to a point, they are all slightly larger than life, less predictable than we would be, and prone to staying with a course of action for longer than is credible. But in a Trapido novel, that’s all to be expected.
So, on the eve of Josh and Caroline’s wedding the reader should not be too surprised when everything takes a dramatic change for the worse courtesy of the arrival of Caroline’s domineering mother. From here on, Caroline is cowed, and her subservience to her mother affects her, Josh and their daughter Zoe. In order to finance her mother’s whims, Caroline drops the studies she adores, gives up her dream of owning a home, refuses to pay for the ballet lessons Zoe longs for, and moves her family into a bus. She accepts this situation with infuriating selflessness, and a determination and pep that alienates her husband and daughter.
While the reader is musing on why so many women make devastating compromises in order to gain approval when it is frustratingly evident that approval will never come, the novel whisks us over to South Africa. Here, Josh, on a work trip, has reconnected with Hattie. Hattie is unhappily married, and yearns to replace the lush greenery of Africa for the milky skies of England. Hattie finds solace in writing a series of children’s books about ballet, the very books being read across the miles by Caroline and Josh’s daughter Zoe.
This story takes place against the background of the years shortly before and after apartheid, so while we are willing Caroline to stand up to her mother, and hoping Josh addresses the problems in his marriage, and that Zoe gets better treatment from both parents, something very large is going on. The novel is about compromise and choices and power in personal relationships, and politics is not its main focus, but several secondary characters spring from this significant political back story and they are the least convincing portraits – somewhat surprisingly since Trapido was born and raised in South Africa.
The novel skips from coincidence to chance, as happens in opera and comic theatre, so it’s fitting that this tangle of characters should crash together in an Oscar Wilde-like moment. And while it’s satisfying to watch them use the ensuing chaos as an opportunity to seize the dreams they’d abandoned, the second half of the book hurtles towards a tidy happy ending with unseemly haste.
Of course, this is a novel, not real life, so it is the author’s right to take the characters in any direction she wishes. And because Trapido is a master of complex storytelling we trust that we can follow her trail of unlikely events to a fitting end. But in this case, the ending seems impatient, and I fear that Trapido’s loyal readership may find it disappointing or too contrived.
Barbara Trapido is not as well known as Iris Murdoch, Rose Tremain or Carol Shields, authors to whom she’s been compared, but critics cite her as one of Britain’s best writers. Despite my misgivings about the ending of Sex and Stravinsky this is an intelligent and enjoyable novel, and if it’s your first encounter with Trapido you’ll be pleased that there is an impressive back catalogue to explore.