The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

The Ensemble.jpg

The Ensemble
by Aja Gabel
352 pages
Riverhead Books (May 15, 2018)
Advance copy provided by publisher

Like many of you, I will assume, I try not to judge a book by its cover; having said that, the first time I laid eyes on the The Ensemble I was hooked. I am thankful that its designer fully appreciated the unique and breathtaking qualities of this narrative and assisted in translating it into a cover worthy of its beauty. That this is a debut novel is equally stunning; it is also one of the reasons that debut novels excite me because there are times, exceptionally, when I stumble upon such luck. 

The Ensemble is just as its title suggests: a story of four individuals who join one another rather early in life, thanks to their musical craft, but I would argue that the music is but a small part of the dynamic that binds them. If you've ever been on a team of any sort that requires the full commitment of each member for success, you might have a glimpse into the life of a string quartet.

The four of them walked through the airport single file, with big spaces between them, and some people stared, wondering if they were in a band or famous; and the whole time Henry felt like an imposter, like inside the case under his arm was not a viola but something dangerous: a gun he wasn’t trained to use, an explosive he couldn’t stop from detonating, a small, foreign animal - scared, volatile, and hungry.

Thankfully, author Aja Gabel, a former cellist, has gifted readers with her talent for crafting prose that is as melodic and fluid as the music played by her characters; she takes readers on a journey through these characters' lives that ebbs and flows both beautifully and tragically. She also includes a list of pieces that are mentioned and described during each section of the novel; I HIGHLY recommend listening while you read, if possible! There were a few times when I read at night, in bed, and did not follow the music, but I did go back and listen to those selections; I think it adds so much to the experience. I have created a Spotify playlist that includes all (with the exception of one) of the pieces listed, in case you're interested. 

I am not a musician; I played piano at a competitive level for seven years, but gave it up while I was in high school (moved on to sports and worthless social endeavors). There is quite a bit of musical lingo and discussion in this novel, but please do not let that deter you; it adds so much to the power of the story. In addition, I have to say that the narrative builds, progressively; the second half of the novel is propulsive and I could not put it down. 

They’d become adults in this strange thing they did, in the years they’d attached themselves to each other, the half a lifetime they’d orbited the quartet. They went through life as a unit, banking on the consistency of emotional expression, all the while given to the same normal tragedies and impulses and failures and passions as everybody else.

This novel is perfect for fans of broken, flawed characters with hazy pasts and, rather than family dynamics, it is filled with ensemble dynamics; think of A Little Life but, instead of individual characters, as a group of characters who sacrifice and survive disappointment for the sake of one another. It is BEAUTIFUL! Did I say that already? 


 

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