Random House, 1998, 282pp
ISBN: 0 09 183540 2
"And then the sharks. The thrash of water and blood
and the swiftness of it all. I saw the bone
stripped open though the sound of the animal's screams
still vibrated. We saw ourselves. We saw ourselves.
Two days on that reef"
That Thomas Shapcott is a poet is abundantly clear when his imagination is given free rein. His prose is alive with images, full of feeling, and it powerfully evokes the thoughts and feelings of his characters. When historical detail fetters his imaginative freedom, however, his touch is less sure.
Thus, the first part of this book is disappointingly bland as Shapcott weaves the real history of the operatic Diva, Lillian Nordica, into his story and, at the same time, gives his fictional characters their background and purpose. By the time I reached the last chapter (or scene) in 'Act I', I was inclined to a cynical view of the critics' comments quoted on the book's front cover: "a prose writer of considerable subtlety and delicacy" (London Magazine) and "His is an art that conceals art..."(TLS) suggested to me that perhaps the story had no life.
But I was wrong. In the final scene of Act 1 (the book is structured as if it were an opera), Shapcott introduces the first real dramatic tension to the story, and the imagination breaks free. From then on, the musical counterpoint of thoughts and voices complements the action and the drama becomes gripping.
Lillian Nordica, who was for a decade the Metropolitan Opera's finest dramatic soprano, was shipwrecked in the Torres Strait in 1914. Shapcott's acknowledgment page cites a number of factual works which deal with the history of the shipwreck; that of another ship, the Quetta; the history of Thursday Island; and the lives of the Torres Strait Islanders. He also notes that what first sparked his interest was a 1990 letter in the magazine _Gramophone_ which said that Lillian Nordica "died of exposure" after the shipwreck.
La Nordica's career, at the time of the shipwreck, was waning fast. And Shapcott's story suggests that the 'exposure' which led to her death was more than physiological. As befits a renowned Wagnerian heroine, it is a man named Seigfried who becomes the agent of La Nordica's psychological trauma. And Seigfried Fomorian, like the sharks which attack the shipwrecked horse, is deeply concerned with death and bones. He is a phrenologist, visiting the island to collect skulls and skull-measurements for his research.
The theme of exposure, and other themes linked to the social, cultural and sexual mores of the era in which the shipwreck happened are the basis of this novel, which is ambitious and interesting. Other characters here mighty well have Wagnerian parallels, but it would be stretching credibility to claim to take such allusions too far. And sadly, the operatic structure Shapcott has adopted invites comparison with Wagnerian opera which is quite different in scope and tone to Shapcott's work. Musical as Shapcott's prose frequently is, it has none of the sweeping power and drama of Wagner, and La Nordica's final scene is a limp and watery pastiche of Brunhilde's glorious end. This is, perhaps, appropriate for a fading opera star, but is a disappointing finale for an opera.
Nevertheless, this is a curious story, well written, and offering plenty of food for thought.