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August 6, 2014

Book Notes - Kimberly Elkins "What Is Visible"

What Is Visible

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Both compelling and moving, Kimberly Elkins' debut novel is an impressive work of historical fiction that brings to light the life of Laura Bridgman, a nineteenth century blind, deaf, and mute woman.

The Atlantic wrote of the book:

"Kimberly Elkins gives Bridgman her defiant due in reimagining her fascinating, now-forgotten story… The world Elkins discovers within is anything but muted. In tactile prose, she evokes a soul and a body with hungers (yes, there is sex) that none of Bridgman’s guides begins to imagine."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Kimberly Elkins' Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, What Is Visible:


What Is Visible, my dream soundtrack


Even though I always listen to classical music when writing and every other kind when I'm not, I was initially thrown by the offer to write a piece for this column: how could I adequately parallel the experiences of Laura Bridgman, my protagonist, who was rendered deaf, blind and mute by scarlet fever at the age of two, with music? And then as I examined each chapter of my novel, the fictional account of her real life, certain compositions came ringing up from my subconscious, and now it feels as though each of them will be forever linked in my mind and heart to these moments from the book.

In the nineteenth century, Laura Bridgman was widely considered the world's most famous woman, second only to Queen Victoria, and yet for reasons explored in the novel, she has been virtually erased from history. Today, we all remember only Helen Keller, who was actually known then as "the second Laura Bridgman." The novel is narrated primarily by Laura, but other voices chime in: her mentor and father figure, the arrogant and controlling Dr. Howe, founder of Perkins Institution; his wife, Julia Ward Howe, the renowned poet and suffragist, whom Laura loathed; and Sarah Wight, her beloved last teacher, from whom she is tragically parted at the age of twenty.


"Salve Regina," finale of "Dialogues of the Carmelites," Poulenc

At first, I felt sure that I wouldn't be able to find music that could possibly equal the devastation of the two-year-old Laura losing her senses (even taste and smell) until she is left in a dark and silent world. But then I was reminded of the finale of Poulenc's tragic opera, which was inspired by the true story of a group of Carmelite nuns who defied anti-religious decrees and were guillotined during the French Revolution. In the wrenching last scene, the nuns walk one by one to the guillotine as they all sing the "Salve Regina." The sound of the swooshing blade slices through the music with each death, until there is only one nun left, singing alone, and then complete silence. The effect is one of sudden and terrifying irrevocability, and so I discovered the musical equivalent of Laura's shattering loss of her senses, each loss cutting her off from the world as surely as an executioner's blade.


"Four Seasons, Spring," Vivaldi

This one might be a bit of a cliche, but to me, nothing matches it for the sheer exuberant expression of joy, the kind of joy Laura experiences when she is taught language by Dr. Howe at age seven, and is once again able to communicate with other human beings through hand spelling. She still can't see, but she can connect, and now she knows she is not alone.


"Hurt," Trent Reznor

Whether it was actually written about self-harming or heroin, this song resonates deeply with Laura's self-cutting, though whether she does it from emotional distress or to push the limits of her one remaining sense, that of touch, is not entirely clear. Maybe it's both. As she says in the book, "It doesn't hurt. I actually like it because it is the strongest feeling I know. I push beyond the barriers of myself, and I am bigger for a moment, flowing out into the world. For me, it is not mutilation, but experience."


"Just Once," Katherine K

I'd like to be a sweet flower 
but a little worldly wise
to be the kind of girl designed 
to be kissed upon the eyes

Just once, Just once, Just once
before the chance is gone

To do the things I've dreamed about
but never done before
perhaps I'm bad or wild or mad
with lots of grief in store
but I want much more

Just once, Just once, Just once
I deserve much more

This beautiful ballad sums up Laura's feelings perfectly; she felt that she was never quite a "real girl," and would never be viewed that way by anyone. Publicly exhibited to thousands from the age of eight, Laura wanted more than anything "to be a present for the crowd, to show how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity." "Just Once" is her theme song.


"Jackson," Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash

This song epitomizes the can't-live-with-'em, can't-live-without-'em battle of the sexes, and is therefore perfect as an accompaniment to the acrimonious marriage of Dr. Howe and Julia Ward Howe: "We got married in a fever, hotter than a peppered sprout." The Howes never stopped being hot for each other, even when they were at each other's throats, and by allowing each of them their own chapters in the book, we begin to understand the complexities of their storied relationship.


"Fix You," Coldplay

The most rending cover is sung by Young@Heart, the famed rock chorus made up entirely of the elderly, and it is the song that resonates most deeply with the character of Laura's last teacher, Sarah, who is also given chapters from her point of view. Sarah desperately wanted to "fix" Laura in any way she could, but of course, it couldn't be done. And then when Sarah marries, she discovers that her new husband also bears a terrible burden which she cannot fix.


"Memorial," Michael Nyman

This absolutely compelling tribute of mourning from my favorite movie soundtrack, Nyman's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, echoes the utter despair that consumes Laura when Dr. Howe decides that he is finished with her as an "experiment," and sends her back home to her family in New Hampshire. Within months, Laura has starved herself to the edge of death, a fairly simple progression for one who cannot taste or smell. Dr. Howe allows his former prodigy to come back to Perkins, but she is relegated to a small cottage on the grounds, and never again celebrated or promoted by him.


"I've Got You Under my Skin," Frank Sinatra

Old Blue Eyes might seem like a strange choice for a 19th-century novel, but this song captures perfectly the exaggeratedly tactile longing and abandon of Laura's first and only romantic relationship. Bound to the world of the senses only by touch, Laura makes the most of it in her tumultuous relationship with Kate, a young Irish woman, and the sex veers into a unique playing out of the S&M dynamic. After all, if you only have one sense, you want to push it to the extreme, and Laura does.


"Battle Hymn of the Republic"

And now for something completely different: Julia Ward Howe finally achieved the fame she sought, and some measure of independence from her domineering, autocratic husband, after writing the lyrics to this American classic, sung to the tune of "John Brown's Body." John Brown is also a character in the novel, as Dr. Howe was one of the Secret Six, the Northerners involved in financing the disastrous raid on Harper's Ferry.


"Amazing Grace," Diane Schuur

Although it cost her greatly, Laura's conversion from what she perceived as the coldness of Unitarianism, the prevailing religion of the New England elite who had supported her, to the white-hot Baptist faith, was one of the major turning points of her life. To me, nothing quite captures the depth of feeling of "Amazing Grace," especially as interpreted by the incredible jazz singer, Diane Schuur, who also happens to be blind. Laura needed the absolute intimacy of a personal and accessible God, a constant companion, because, when it came down to it, who else did she really have to talk to? "God is a strange and mysterious master," Laura writes, "and I no doubt am a strange and mysterious servant."

"As Tears Go By," Marianne Faithfull

I love the cover by Jagger's then girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull. Though Faithfull recorded the song when she very young, my dream would be to hear her perform it now in her haunting, time-ravaged rasp. That is the voice I hear from Laura at the end of her life--"the evening of the day"--as she writes her story out into the air, "that what is invisible to man may be visible to God."


Kimberly Elkins and What Is Visible links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

BookPage review
Bookreporter review
Christian Science Monitor review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Washington Post review

Dead Darlings interview with the author
Rosemary and Reading Glasses interview with the author
Slice interview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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