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June 1, 2010

Book Notes - Deborah Noyes ("Captivity")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Joe Wallace, author of the novel Diamond Ruby, recently stated in an essay at Wonders and Marvels that when writing historical fiction, "You don’t fictionalize the history. You bring the fiction to life." Deborah Noyes clearly does that in her new novel, Captivity.

Captivity captivatingly tells the tale of the inspirations of the American Spiritualist movement, sisters Maggie and Kate Fox as well as Maggie's influence on a young, reclusive woman. Noyes explores grand themes of spirituality, love, and loss while always maintaining a gripping storyline.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"A novel of beguiling characters that probes both belief and the veracity of emotion, this endlessly fascinating work should be considered by all fiction readers."

In her own words, here is Deborah Noyes' Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Captivity:

Captivity follows the fortunes of two women: the real-life Maggie Fox, a farm girl from Western New York who unwittingly became a celebrity medium and helped launch the spiritualist movement; and Clara Gill, a recluse and skeptic with a tragic past.

Their unlikely friendship is the subject of the book, but I'll fess up, I'm a morbid-romantic with a weakness for ill-fated love (and the ensuing hauntings). For me it was youthful Clara's doomed bond with Will Cross, a beast keeper in the Tower of London menagerie, that drove the story emotionally. So I spent a lot of time listening to dark updates on traditional/narrative folk songs about love and death.

Thumbing through Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads is my idea of fun anyway, but when you write historical fiction — no matter how integral the when and where are to the plot — you want the book to connect with readers today. You're after immediacy and universal resonance. Studying how new artists own old ballads like the two I use in the book ("The Elfin Prince," aka "Scarborough Fair," and "The Unquiet Grave"), how these songs evolve on the strength of timeless truths, taught me much.

But in the end it was a mood I was after, so I listened to plenty of original material too. New or old, the songs that nourished Captivity all hovered between the earthy — apple trees, clay, and bees — and the otherworldly.

"Unquiet Grave," Kate Rusby

I used a verse from this ballad as an epigraph because it cuts right to the paradox in the book: longing to hold on, keep our dead with us, and needing to let go or turn back to life (just as the speaker in the song, his sleep interrupted by his lover's persistent grief, must "turn into his grave.") Rusby's interpretation is beautiful and unadorned.

"In Darkness Let Me Dwell," Sting and Edin Karamazov

A classical Elizabethan composition may seem out of place for a Victorian-era novel — especially as performed by a pop-rock star and a Bosnian lutenist — but this update on Dowland's commanding ballad really suits the Clara we meet when the book opens. Twenty years past the defining tragedy of her life, she's a case of arrested development — "O let me dying live." She's stubbornly withdrawn from life, but she feels it anyway, a dull ache, always.

"Soon This Space Will Be Too Small," Lhasa

Another song that gets right at Clara in the opening chapters, a woman under domestic siege who understands "that to be as she was before — to barely be — will not be tolerated." Her easy, reclusive life is coming to a forced end. Metaphorically, she has to "go outside/to the wide hillside, where the wild winds blow/and the cold stars shine," but it will take a kind of sorcery to see her there safely.

"Apparition," Patrick Wolf

Wolf's grating, agitated, expectant fiddle teases and summons…a great backdrop for the night in March when Maggie and Kate Fox first demonstrate their astonishing gift for communicating with the dead.

"Ghost," Jorane

I have no French and no clue what Jorane is really saying in this song (or if she's saying anything at all; words almost seem beside the point). But her hushed vocals and tentative cello, equal parts caution and curiosity, sure could be addressing the dead. Here I imagine Maggie and Kate when we first meet them, poised on a dare, "filled with fate as a sail is for going."

"Resurrection Fern," Iron & Wine

Sam Beam is one of our great songwriters, I think, and many of his songs — "Each Coming Night," "Muddy Hymnal," "Naked as We Came," etc. — are flat-out haunted and haunting. I listen to Iron and Wine constantly, but if I had to choose one song for this, it would be "Resurrection Fern." Rural and feral, it links the metaphysical to the mundane and domestic — "In our days we will live/Like our ghosts will live/Pitching glass at the cornfield crows/And folding clothes" — in a way that suggests how two ordinary farm girls might transcend the limitations of their lives, of their bodies even, to seize a unique shared fate.

Throughout the book, Maggie is conflicted about her gift. Her clairvoyance is more limited than she lets on, but the real question for me wasn't, "Can she or can't she?" It was, "What's the difference, after all, between real and unreal when people react precisely the same way to either?" Beam's line, "We gave the world what it saw fit/And what'd we get?" seems to echo this. The Fox sisters met a deep need in their public but were often rewarded, for their trouble, with scorn and derision.

Beam's "oak tree and its resurrection fern" also recalls a point when Maggie is defending spiritualism's key concept: the continuity of life. She invokes Voltaire's "everything in nature is resurrection," maybe because she knows that rational Clara, a naturalist, will respond to this kind of argument.

"Black Is Color of My True Love's Hair," Laura Gibson

Dark and plaintive, this is another beautifully updated traditional ballad. Desire will bring us to our knees (or worse … see below).

"Love It Is a Killing Thing," Sheila Chandra

It's literally the case for Will, and like the speaker in this stark, layered, and complex song, Clara is "sick and bad in love."

"An' Another Thing," Dave Matthews

Matthews' lyrics are deliciously incomprehensible, but this song just screams longing. One phrase that registers is "rain on my head," and there's a scene in the book when Clara is seated across from Will at a formal public dinner and managing her lust. She's removed to a private room and is at the window watching the rain, cloaked in heavy drapes, when he appears on the other side, and they have this wordless exchange through the fogged glass. Most of their quick, doomed, uber-Victorian romance takes place with something literally or figuratively between them, and this song with its blissed-out anguish is almost operatic.

"When My Love and I Parted," Solas

This one's about forbearance, which Clara takes to the extreme. The speaker in the song mourns (a sailor? a betrothed seeking his fortune?) while vowing never to despair: all true lovers meet again. "No fate can sever my love from me/for his heart is a river and mine the sea." Clara's "captivity" is the relentless sensation of Will dogging the edges of her life. Long dead, he hasn't left yet.

"Sweet William," Tunng

Another spin on traditional folk material full of gorgeous physical and metaphysical imagery… eerie, muffled, and violent with its static and electronic blips, clanks, and crackling. There's a chapter in the book — also called "Sweet William" — when an older, petulant Clara thinks, "Shut me in my coffin" and "can almost feel the sweet William growing over, roots insinuating themselves into the earth she's become." Another take on the morbid-romantic/earthy-otherworldly theme, I guess.

This also suggests the muffled anger and jealousy of the character of Artemus, Will's rival for young Clara's affections. A much older gentleman in a position of authority in her life, Artemus has no power at all to command her heart, and so takes drastic measures.

"O Love Is Teasin'," Isobel Campbell

"Come all you fair maids, now take a warning/Don't ever heed what a young man say/He's like a star on some foggy morning/You think he's near he's far away." Campbell's voice has both the breathless vulnerability of a little girl and the sophistication of the fallen, wise to false promises.

By the standards of Clara's age, Will turns out to be everything her meddlesome aunts warn he will be. But, like many before her, Clara succumbs anyway. "I left my home and my fond relations/Oh my young man, for the sake of you."

"A Long Night on the Misty Moor," Liz Carroll & John Doyle

For me this beautiful fiddle tune evokes Clara's helplessness, her dark night of the soul and dawning resignation. The worst has happened and "in some part of herself that opposes life, that prefers the idea of the thing to the thing itself," she's relieved. But there's still the mystery of Will's letter, its contents lost to her, an ongoing torment.

"I Am Stretched On Your Grave," Kate Rusby

Like "Unquiet Grave," this original is an earthy take on otherworldly love, on lovers divided and the bond that won't break, even when it should or must. This song may have seeded the whole thing for me… way back when. It's so mysterious and resonant: "My apple tree, my brightness, it's time we were together/For I smell of the earth/and I'm worn by the weather." Clara often links Will to orchards, apples, horses, bees… earthy things. Her (unconsummated) desire for him is physical, after all, as much as spiritual.

"Leave Your Light On," Tim Eriksen

I've already confessed to being a morbid-romantic, but this one's about as Wuthering Heights (Appalachian style?) as you get. "Leave your light on tonight," the speaker vows, "I'll find a way through the cold shadows." Tragically separated from his wife, this waylaid ghost can smell her on the other side "through kerosene/through the clay." He needs a light to guide him home ("I have a home in your eyes"), vowing in a near growl to wipe the clay from his own eyes. It's almost scary, how Eriksen inhabits this song. Moving, bleak, gorgeous stuff.

"Souverian," Andrew Bird

"Though thrushes sing, still my lover won't return to me." This might be what Eliot had in mind when he wrote, "April is the cruelest month." The birds are chittering, but meanwhile steeples catch fire; wild parsnip scalds the speaker's lungs; thistles burn his feet. An otherworldly procession under the elder trees beckons, "If you join our chorus/you will never fear anymore… we will meet on a fatal shore." Oblivion as a cure for grief. Chilling and lovely. Bird whistles like an angel (do angels whistle? Hope so.)

"Green Grass," Cibelle

"Lay your head where my heart used to be/Hold the earth above me/Lay down in the green grass/Remember when you loved me." Cibelle's dreamy vocals (plus Devendra Banhart's lush and spooky back-up) and tinkling bells lead blithely back to that "everything in nature is resurrection" theme: "God took the stars and he tossed them/Can't tell the birds from the blossoms/You'll never be free of me/He'll make a tree of me." This song may not speak to the continuity of life in the literal sense that the Fox sisters proposed; but this is a brand of metaphysical Will and Clara would understand.

"My Dream of You," Solas

Clara dreams of Will on the night before she loses him — they're both children in the dream — and remembers it in more detail at the end of the book. In a funny way, it comforts her to know he'll "never go forward again, only back."

"Weary of Lying Alone," Karan Casey

This for me is Sven's song. He's Clara's patient friend and sees in her a second chance, which she finally finds in him also. He understands the spiritual depths of her loss but also intuits her need for earthly closure.

"Scarborough Fair," The Imagined Village

A variation on these lyrics appears in the book. When Clara first meets Will, he calls this a song his mum used to sing, and Clara "knows this moment in her own story."

I searched and searched for a version of this that suggested all I wanted it to (the Simon and Garfunkel doesn't, though theirs is pretty). The closest I came was a hybrid — part Cordelia's Dad, part Mediaeval Babes, part ?

This January (cheating, I guess, since the novel was long finished when the album released), The Imagined Village came out with Empire and Love. The moment I heard their "Scarborough Fair," I thought, that's it. Here's the doomy, languid treatment the song deserves, all dark enchantment and silky sitar. The voice of Chris Woods could easily belong to that "elfin prince" a proper Victorian girl with a below-stairs imagination fears she's found in Will. "Achieve the impossible," he commands, as withholding as he is enticing, and then and only then "you will be a true lover of mine." Clara's smart enough to get that she's "being pixie-led into a wood, where he'll feed her treats with lovely long fingers and she'll forget her name and how to get home again, for perfectly virtuous and otherwise clever girls are led astray in just this way and ruined daily."

Deborah Noyes and Captivity links:

the author's website
the author's blog

Babette's Book Blog review
BrainBlossom review
Broken Teepee review
Examiner review
Feminist Review review
Journal of a Reader review
Jump Off the Bridge review
Library Journal review
The Lit Witch review
Publishers Weekly review
Rundpinne review
Seeing the World Through Books review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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