NESFA Members' Reviews

The Glass Harmonica

by Louise Marley

Ace Books, 2000, ISBN 0-441-00729-5

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

This is two stories told in alternating chapters, with the connections between them gradually becoming clearer. Eilish Ea m is an Irish orphan living in the Seven Dials section of London in 1761, barely keeping herself alive playing tunes on glasses for pennies. Erin Rushton is a professional musician in 2018, playing the glass harmonica to audiences newly interested in the o ld instrument, in a society going through a serious nostalgia fit. Eilish is found by Benjamin Franklin, who, charmed by her playing on the glasses, takes her in to help with the tuning of the glass harmonica, which he is trying to perfect. Erin finds her self increasingly caught up in two things: her twin brother Charles, who composes much of the music she plays, is determined to walk again, and has found a doctor with an unproven new technique, augmented binaural stimulation, to restore Charles' ability to walk, and at the same time Erin herself is troubled by a wraith that sometimes appears when she's playing the glass harmonica.

Eilish finds that, despite the fact that Franklin and most of the residents of the Stevenson household (where Franklin was living at the time) are kind, her good fortune hasn't solved all her problems. She isn't earning enough money to make a big difference in the life of Mackie, the little crippled boy she had been helping to care for before meeting Franklin. Franklin's other project at the time, experimenting with electrical shocks for the treatment of epilepsy, distresses her greatly. Like Erin, she's seeing wraiths--although, believing in second sight and that she has second sight, she's not as distressed by them as Erin is.

Erin struggles to trust Dr. Berrick, struggles with seeing her brother struggle to walk, struggles with fear of going mad, struggles with their mother Sarah's efforts to control their lives for their own good. Eilish faces everything bravely; Erin has to force herself not to run from trouble and confrontation, and does it only for her brother's sake. What Erin and Eilish have in common is the love of the music of the glass harmonica.

Marley's not a cheerful writer, but she does present here characters that feel rounded and real, and if the world of 2018 feels a little thin in places, it's quite convincing in others, and she avoids either romanticizing London of 1761, or dwelling on its awfulness. Worth reading.

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