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Impossible Music – Book Review

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published July 18th 2019
You heard it here first
I have mentioned Sean Williams, the South Australian author, before here at Weekend Notes. He is one of my favourite Australian writers, but I am an avid reader of speculative fiction, which is where I know him from.


Okay, a story to start with (and there'll be one to end with as well… sorry). I was talking with a friend recently and, like many people, when she found out that I am attempting to make a living from writing, she asked the standard 3 questions: "Have you had any books published?" (Yes, one, two more pending.) "Would I have read anything by you?" (I have poems published semi-regularly in the local paper, so maybe.) "What do you write?" (Standard answers.)

Then she asked, "How many Australian science fiction and fantasy writers are there?" I laughed and the first name that came out of my mouth was Sean Williams. She stopped me and reached into her bag. She was reading a book called Impossible Music by a Sean Williams. "The same one?" Well, she told me, it's set in Adelaide, so I guessed the answer was yes. I told her I'd never heard of it, so she let me read the first chapter.

That afternoon, I ordered it from Amazon Australia; two days later it arrived; a day and a half later I'd finished it.

This, then, is my review of Impossible Music by Sean Williams.
sean williams, impossible music, book, novel, story, deaf

This is not science fiction. This is a story about people that I can see making a really good ABC TV drama. The first thing that struck me was that it clearly sounds like a modern kid would sound (judging by my friend who introduced me to it, and her 25 years of life on this Earth). The second thing was that this was Adelaide. I've performed at the Jade Monkey! I've performed at the Fringe! This is the city I grew up in, captured so well. It is what I try to do in my own meagre work, and now I have read it where it is not forced but still so palpable.

The third thing is that all the way through it I kept thinking about Martin Pistorius' autobiography and all he went through. The main character of Simon has a fair bit in common with that determination Pistorius showed so defiantly.

This is a beautiful book.

This is the story of Simon, a promising musician for whom music is literally all that matters to him, but who has a mini-stroke that takes away his hearing. All of his hearing. He cannot even get the register of his own body coming to him. While still trying to come to terms with this, his girlfriend dumps him and, of course, the band he's in stops making music with him. However, he meets G at a deaf class, a girl suffering from tinnitus. And, more than that, he still has dreams of entering university in music composition, by creating an "impossible music" that can be enjoyed by everyone at the same time on the same level, deaf and hearing alike. That's the story in a nutshell, and I am not going to give away the ending or any of the other issues that come up because I want everyone to go out and buy it and read it. It is told in a non-linear narrative of a sort, jumping back and forth in time to reach its endpoint, there are flourishes of humour (a lot more than I would have given a story of this subject credit for) as well as scenes of striking poignancy and incredible emotion.

Those 200 words feel like I am seriously selling this short.

The characters live. Simon was realised so wonderfully. You felt what he was going through so clearly. The ups and downs. The highs and lows. G was done well and the growth of Maeve through it was a subtle but nice thing. Simon's parents felt a little like stereotypes, however, and some of the other ancillary characters were a little cookie cutter. But the growth of Simon is amazingly done; G has the anger I can relate to when things go badly and there is no way back that you can see. The way Williams dealt with the attempted suicide was very well done as well, not harping on it, and yet it was crucial to the story as it unfolded.

That's not to say it is a perfect book. Exposition dumps appear at times and the argument at the amphitheatre felt odd. I read it through twice and can't quite put my finger on it. I understand why G was so upset, and where Simon was coming from, but the way it wrapped itself up… And the Coda section feels too up… Look, if I write what I think here, I'll give it away, and I don't want to do that.

But the simple fact of the matter is that I read it in a day and a half and could not put the thing down, the first time a book has done that for me in four years, and the first time an Australian author has done that to me in well over a decade.

But it is not just the story. The turns of phrase throughout are a music all their own.

"People are musical instruments, just like my guitar, but we learn from long habit to tune out our personal symphonies. We only notice when it's going wrong – or gone completely, when the symphony is over and the orchestra has left the stage."

"Music is not a thing you're doing. It's a process, a thing you're being."

"And if my sister is making me lunch and making me feel better, life can't be completely awful.
We don't dwell on it. An infinite number of psychotic psychologists await our righteous fists.

Now, when I read I like to have music on in the background. Well, I found myself scouring through my files to find the songs Paul and I recorded a few years ago, the ones I wrote. It was like I was feeling if this happened to me, the last music I would hear would be my own. Yes, the story got to me that much.

sean williams, author, Adelaide, Australia
Sean Williams

Now, I said there was another story, and this is also where I declare a vested interest. I don't mean I was going to give this a good review if it didn't deserve it, but I am slightly more inclined to read Sean's work. See, many years ago, I was at the release of an anthology a short story of mine had appeared in, my first published story in over ten years, and Sean was the guy launching it. I knew of him by reading his stuff and managed to get an introduction. He spent a decent chunk of time talking to me, this scruffy guy who did not fit in with Adelaide's writing élite at all. He gave me two bits of advice I have taken to heart (and which I will not divulge), both of which have turned out to be worth listening to. He introduced me to another author named Margaret Visciglio who became my mentor of sorts and got me into a decent writing/critique group. And he said some good things about my story. Well, a few years later, Sean was studying (maybe his PhD?) and he came to talk to this writers' group. I bailed him up and told him of where I was and how I was getting disillusioned. He repeated one of those bits of advice and told me I'd be fine.

He was right. If things go according to the way editors/publishers have said, my 100th published work of fiction/poetry will be coming out in June next year (2020).

But that's an aside and written so I have put everything on the table. That does not diminish the fact that this is a great book. Buy it, read it, fall in love with it. And now I will be reading it again…
music, concert, sean williams, impossible music
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