On the Shelf: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

If you’ve heard, among other songs, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, “Incense” by Erykah Badu, or “Please Go Home” by The Rolling Stones, you’ve heard a theremin, the instrument pioneered by the Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, known as Léon Theremin in the west. It’s an instrument that makes it seem as if one is playing music out of thin air: a box with two antennas, you move your hands through the electromagnetic fields and sound emerges. Done well, it is entirely captivating and pioneered electronic music in the early twentieth century. Done poorly… Well, you can imagine.

Drawing inspiration from Clara Rockmore, the woman dubbed the greatest thereminist of all time, and the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, Tracy Farr presents Dame Lena Gaunt—rocker, junkie, octogenarian—who becomes the somewhat reluctant subject of a fictional documentary film. Mo Patterson, the filmmaker, approaches Gaunt following a performance at a Perth music festival.

Of documentary making Patterson tells Gaunt, “Someone once said that a documentary is in between inventing and capturing reality. I want our documentary, this project, to sort of acknowledge both things, both invention and reality.” The same can be said for Farr’s novel. Structured as a series of interviews either captured on film or through chats with Patterson taking notes, some of the most painful revelations of Gaunt’s life are told only in a manuscript narrative Gaunt has composed and typed herself and left for the filmmaker’s discovery. We learn of Gaunt’s childhood spent away from her family, her love with the modern artist Beatrix Carmichael, the birth and eventual tragic loss of her daughter, and the way in which finding musical fame affected her singular life.

Through the detail of Gaunt’s well-lived, fearlessly loved life and art, I find the greatest strength of Farr’s novel: forgetting entirely that Dame Lena herself is fictional. The skill in creating a protagonist so thoroughly believable makes The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt an incredibly pleasurable, satisfying read.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, first published by Freemantle Press, is available now in the UK, reprinted by Aardvark Bureau. The US edition, also published by Aardvark Bureau, hits shelves early May 2016.

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