Louise Marley,
The Glass Harmonica
(Ace, 2000)

In The Glass Harmonica, Louise Marley blends the past and the future into a haunting historical fantasy.

Eilish Eam is an Irish orphan living in the slums of London in 1761. She ekes out a meager living as a street musician, her instrument a set of water-filled glasses. Her skill in playing them attracts the attention of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who hires her to assist him in a project. He soon installs her in the comfortable house on Craven Street where he rents rooms from a Mrs. Stevenson, and she finds that her task is to help him develop his newest invention: the glass harmonica. Eilish loves the instrument, although she finds that she is having odd visions of a strange young woman with short hair and peculiar clothing.

Erin Rushton is a 23-year-old prodigy in 2018. She plays the glass harmonica, the 21st-century successor to Franklin's invention. She is devoted to her twin brother, Charlie, a composer, wheelchair bound since he was 8. Second only to his music is his determination to walk, which leads him to a young doctor, Gene Berrick, who is experimenting with new techniques to redirect the neural pathways in Charlie's brain.

Like Eilish, Erin also sometimes experiences visions of a young woman when she plays her glass harmonica. In Erin's case, the young woman has long dark hair and old-fashioned clothing. Each senses that the other has some purpose for her, and what connects them are the glittering, spinning cups of their respective instruments.

Marley skillfully weaves together past and future, vividly evoking the slums of London in Eilish's time which are a stark contrast to the comforts of Craven Street and upper class society. In Erin's time, the pristine "period" neighborhoods are set off by government-created tent cities which house the poor, the unemployed and the homeless.

The two stories resonate subtly in each other, and the not-quite parallels add richness to the narrative. The pace pulls the reader in and does not let go until the last word.

The characters are very well drawn, from the feisty Eilish to the sheltered Erin, who reactions to a tent city are remarkably authentic; the reader fells her shock, distress and embarrassment. Rather than lionizing the historical figure of Franklin, Marley portrays his as the complex and imperfect human being that he was -- kind and generous but also capable of thoughtless boorishness that occasionally crosses the line into unthinking cruelty.

The centerpiece of the book is, of course, the glass harmonica, the piercing and unearthly tones of which can be heard ringing through the tale. Louise Marley's The Glass Harmonica is a fascinating and poignant read.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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Visit Marley's website.