‘All That Sang’ by Lydia Perović

Book Reviews

All That SangReviewed by Tom Ingram

All That Sang is the second work of fiction by Lydia Perović. A Toronto-based author and music journalist, Perović made her literary debut with the 2013 novel Incidental Music, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards in the LGBT Debut Fiction category. Her latest, a brief novella published by Esplanade Books, an imprint of Véhicule Press, is a complex and unconventional story of unrequited love.

Near the beginning, the unnamed narrator says, “I have no stories to proffer…stories are lies by their very build. They eliminate what doesn’t fuel them. Why do we need them so? This isn’t a story. I can’t tell you a story.” Her romance is too messy for a proper story, she says, and in retelling it she has “the desire to keep the muddle.” This “muddle” makes it difficult to offer a clear plot summary, other than to say that the novella follows the ill-fated relationship between the narrator (a Canadian opera critic) and a French orchestral conductor, a woman who has done the difficult job of rising to the top of a male-dominated profession. The narrator grows infatuated with the conductor while on assignment in Paris and eventually the two develop a secret love, with the narrator moving across the Atlantic to be closer to her. It’s a passionate affair—but it does not end well.

The conductor is a distant lover, and the narrator speculates whether a consequence of her openness on the podium is that she is closed off to other people. This elusiveness could also stem from a lack of shared language, neither character being entirely fluent in the other’s language. We don’t learn much more about the conductor in the chapters told from other perspectives, such as the conductor’s housekeeper, Gabriella (the only character whose name is revealed), her manager and her chiropractor. These points of view are not developed in great depth, which makes them seem superfluous to the story as a whole.

Perović takes an epistolary turn at times, adding further “muddle” to the story, with certain chapters presented as interview transcripts (complete with editorial notes), lists, a series of photos of dry cleaning establishments, and a log of events occurring in the lobby of an apartment building. The only thing missing is footnotes. Some of these bits are unnecessary, or at least not obviously connected to the rest of the text, and notably they all but disappear toward the end.

Perović’s prose is quietly lyrical with a tendency toward short sentences and paragraphs, an elevated if not formal register, and tender, careful word choice. The strongest moments are when the narrator uses the conductor’s clothes, her surroundings or videos of her performances to approximate a better understanding of her partner. The conductor’s apartment has a “white cube, scientific lab atmosphere” that “barely tolerates the smells of cooking,” she says. Remarking on a video of the conductor in concert, she says:

There was the body, suited, desexualized, but slight and female, which disturbed the surface and produced sound with its movement. If [the music] grew big and surrounded her, she would fence it off, jump and skip it, sweep it, collect it, dissipate it, halt it, buffer it, withhold it, and throw it back. And with the electrified shudder, she would thrust herself into it, penetrate repeatedly.

This type of gendered imagery is a salient feature of their relationship. “Somehow, the binary jerks its knee and the opposites emerge, a skirt next to the trouser,” the narrator says, making note of “the dangerous pleasure of feeling more woman here, in her apartment, than anywhere else.”

One of the most interesting passages follows a sexual encounter between the narrator and the conductor. “I am unbuttoning your shirt. The whiteness of your dress shirt is blinding to me, so I have to slide down the jacket very carefully. Tailleur always sounds better than jacket. But I’m not really noticing either; it’s the expanse of the white that glows into my eyes and whets them. Also, tears them. As in, wet.” The narrator carries on like this, carefully choosing the words to describe her experience and rejecting others (“straps,” “breasts”) as too vulgar or jagged.

When Perović slips into a more informal register, as she occasionally does, it jars the reader out of an otherwise infectious rhythm. “From 1 to 10 on the Absence Scale, I think she is a 6 or 7 now. Nothing I can’t handle.” Or, “Le pantalon is better than either trousers or pants. Fact.” While the author may intend for such statements to reveal new insight into the narrator (her arbitrary decision-making process, perhaps), they betray the sensuous delight in language expressed throughout much of the story, in favour of glib pronouncements or sarcasm by default. Otherwise, Perović’s style is delightfully suggestive and sensual with great attention to detail.

All That Sang is a slim volume: at a little over 100 pages, many of which are absorbed by the genre experiments and drycleaner photos, it could be read in a one sitting. But in that space Perović manages to cover a surprising amount of ground. Her voice in this novella is remarkable, and although epistolary documents don’t seem to supplement the story, they don’t take much away from it, either. Bound together by Perović’s painstakingly cultivated tone of nostalgic lyricism, All That Sang is a pleasure to read.

Esplanade Books | 138 pages | $17.95 | paper | ISBN #9781550654387

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Tom Ingram

Tom Ingram is a Winnipeg writer of nonfiction, criticism, and journalism. He holds a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Manitoba and is presently pursuing advanced study in music theory.