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September 15, 2016

Book Notes - Melanie Finn "The Gloaming"

The Gloaming

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Melanie Finn's novel The Gloaming is an intense and clever literary thriller.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Finn's sure-footed prose, an intricate, clever plot, and the novel’s powerful examination of cultural divides enrich this story, leading up to its shocking, brilliant conclusion as Pilgrim and the others search for salvation in an unforgiving land."

In her own words, here is Melanie Finn's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Gloaming:

In the old, old days when I first starting writing we had boom boxes. I used to make compilation tapes to write to – a time consuming process that often ended with the tape unspooling or snagging in the mechanics of the tape player. Because of this, I had to be really sure about the music I wanted. I'd make lists, and then have to track down the tapes in friends' collections. This took weeks. I can't help but feel we're too flippant about music now, it's candy we consume in easy downloads. I still have my boxes of old tapes, they sound odd and echoey when I pay them now; apparently, the music actually falls off the tape, disappears.

A large part of The Gloaming takes place in Tanzania. But the music I listened to, that I heard on the street,on tinny little transistor radios or blaring from buses isn't available on iTunes. For instance, there was a hugely successful song in 2007, Kitambi. In Swahili "kitambi" means pot belly; but it's street slang for a corrupt cop, who can be identified by his big, fat belly. He's become that way from "eating" bribes. The song is about some guys who get pulled over with ganja in the back of their car and have to deal with a kitambi. There's no trace of this song now, my Tanzania friends only vaguely remember it. Like the old compilation tapes, it's music that's just disappeared.

Maurice Ravel – "Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (song for a Dead Princess)"
My children's music teacher played this at an organ concert and I wept. The opening is exquisite in its pain and beauty. Laced through the simple, repeating notes that suggest a childhood nursery rhyme – the expectancy of the nursery, a stack of books and toys, the mother carefully preparing, there is a haunting melody of loss. How did Ravel – best known to me for the brash Bolero - do this? I shut my eyes and saw the empty child's room, and the mother sitting there, a still afternoon. Writing about the death of children was torturous, it felt like snuff porn, and I would race through the scenes. But I had to settle into the grief that followed, I had to feel that – particularly for Ernst Koppler.

Nina Simone – "Wild is the Wind"
Here is desolation, a woman stripped of love and hope: Pilgrim. The poignancy here is how Simone places the present tense of the lyrics -"You're spring to me, All things to me" - with the sense that this love is already in the past. She's peeling her skin to feel the pain of loss by pretending her love is still present and possible. This is a woman on a headland above a crashing sea, grasping at her delusions. There are shades of Madame Butterfly's "Un bel di, vedremo" - that collision of loss and longing that feels impossible to overcome and move on from.

Warren Zevon - "Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner"
This is Martin Martins song, anthem of an African mercenary. In earlier versions of The Gloaming Martin was himself a ghost, like Roland, traipsing all over Africa haunting people. (I'm still not altogether convinced he isn't a ghost or at least the invention of Pilgrim's sub-conscious.) Zevon is a master of sarcasm, as Martin imagines himself to be. He's also a genius balladeer (ditto, Martin): "Roland searched the continent/For the man who done him in/He found him in Mombasa/In a bar room drinking gin."

ZZ Top – "Sharp Dressed Man"
Dr. Dorothea is based on a real person, an amazing Tanzanian woman committed to practicing medicine in her country's most under-resourced outposts. I would drink Coke or tea with her in the village cafe and she'd rant about how the locals stole from her and the government didn't send her supplies. She wore these crazy outfits - "demented Tinkerbell." I came to see them as her armor – what she wore to define herself and maintain herself; she had to ward off despair. She saved many, many lives, and she's still out there, in another dusty, forgotten little town, in a wig and kitten heals. She's my hero.

Tracy Chapman – "Fast Car"
In 2000, traveling through the highlands of Ethiopia, I was stranded in a crumby little town for two days. It was raining, the streets turned to knee-high mud, I had food-poisoning and was covered in flea bites, there was nothing to eat but curd and xxxx. However, there was a bar, and I would nurse a beer through the afternoon, watching the rain, waiting to hear news of the bus. The theme song from The Titantic was playing over and over again, each hour like a musical Groundhog Day – only nothing changed. I had nothing to read, I was watching mold grow slowly up the walls. Then, the bartender put on Fast Car, and Chapman's strong, clear voice commandeered the molecules in the air. In The Gloaming I had originally written that this was often playing in the bar of the Goodnight Bar ad Inn; I saw the yearning of those trapped in Magulu, their belief that somewhere, anywhere, was better than here. Drinking in a bar is a way to be elsewhere, to be someone else. I saw Gladness's customers telling themselves stories of the alternate universe they may inhabit, while knowing, in the marrow of their bones, they would never get out.

Rolling Stones - "Waiting on a Friend"
Detective Inspector Paul Strebel is definitely a Stones' man, not a Beatles' fan. The Beatles lyrics are too inaccessible, too obscure ("I am the eggman"?). As a cop, he wants to understand, he's matter-of-fact. The Stones are direct, there's a clear line from their music to his heart. I thought that "Wild Horses" might be his song for Pilgrim. But while Strebel is besotted with her and desires her, he also wants to be honorable – to be the friend he senses she needs.

Melanie Finn and The Gloaming links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Weird Sister interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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