Kim Echlin, in Under the Visible Life, her first novel since the success of The Disappeared, which was nominated for the 2009 Giller Prize, tantalizes the reader with a brief epigraph from jazz genius John Coltrane: “I start in the middle of a sentence and move in both directions at once.”
If that had been on a playbill for a Coltrane concert, I would have been there in a minute, because he really knew how to do that, not because he was telling a particular story (which he could also do brilliantly) but because he could reach so deeply inside himself that he made you feel as if you were one with him, one with the music, no matter where it lead. Echlin, on the other hand has assumed a different kind of role: she is going to tell you only what you need to know, and it is up to you, the reader, to decide if you want to come along on this trip. Her story structure is more like the musical notation for a piece of improvised jazz, “trading eights” or “sixteens,” two instruments playing with a melody, four or eight bars at a time, until one or the other musician runs out of steam. So this has the feel of a very modern novel.
Echlin weaves her melodic or narrative lines around two characters. The first is Katherine, a Chinese Canadian who grows up in Hamilton, Ontario, never knowing her father, who had long ago returned to China. She and her single mother shared a love for—we learn early on—Frank Sinatra and Billy Holiday.
Katherine’s mother brought her to the hotel where she worked; here Katherine would sit and listen to musicians plying their trade. The young girl’s way out of the narrow life she saw her mother condemned to was to offer her services as a self‑taught pianist to the ballet classes in her school gym. She was not quite 16 and this was her first gig.
The second character is Mahsa, a half Pakistani and half American “mixie,” whose parents were murdered by relatives “dishonoured” by the marriage of their Pakistani sister to a forbidden American. At the time of the murders, Mahsa was only 13.
It is clear that Mahsa adored her father Abbu, who had played jazz piano for fun, but what she remembers most clearly is her father’s adoration of her mother, known as Mor. The sexual charge within her parents’ relationship is imprinted on Mahsa’s memory. Mahsa recalls, “That night Abbu traced his finger along Mor’s blouse below her neck and said, Your collarbone is the place on earth I love the most.” As she develops as a pianist, very much against her strict and humourless aunt and uncle’s wishes, she struggles against the intensity of her liminal attachment to her father.
Perhaps because Echlin has chosen to regulate the pace of her narrative by alternating chapters between these two characters, the story is at times hard to follow. They do not match up emotionally or aesthetically, their fundamental rhythms are at odds, but they share the struggle of mixed parentage, love-addled mothers and an attachment to music, specifically the piano, as a kind of salvation. Eventually, when Katherine and Mahsa meet in Montreal and play music together, their respective losses tie them to one another.
Echlin draws out the moments in these women’s lives that hearken back to the circumstances of their childhood. Katherine’s deep memories have given her a courage lacking in Mahsa, who opts for an arranged marriage to an unpleasant self-absorbed businessman who cannot give her love, but requires her to appear to be a good wife. In his words, “I have done everything I was supposed to.” He is the antithesis of her beloved father, his demands the polar opposite of her father’s enchantment with her mother. When Mahsa and her husband have children together, they become his weapons. He makes demands upon her by playing on her maternal anxieties.
Her attempts to free herself read as childish and fraught with danger. One day Mahsa turns up in New York, taking with her the baby and her young son Asif. She and Katherine meet in a park with their children. Mid conversation, Mahsa discovers that Asif is missing. The reader (me) panics. Does she really deserve this turn of events? All she did was look away for a moment while her young child was playing by the water.
Mahsa thinks, “I do not know why I did not squat down beside him … and coax him away from the shore.” And then, the boy reappears, unharmed. He is safe but Mahsa’s own fears and guilt feelings (she had, after all, brought the boy to New York!) engulf the child, and he cries. “I pulled him away as if my imagined dangers were more important than his contemplation of what was real.” Perhaps because Mahsa’s own parents, who would have gathered her in their arms and made sure she knew how much she was loved, had been snatched away from her in so horrifying a way, she is not able to connect herself to that level of maternal emotion.
Katherine has married a fellow musician. Although her husband is most often on the road playing music and dallying with drugs and other women, she seems to understand and forgive him so powerful is the man’s attraction and her love for him. She repeatedly takes him back, wanting the thrill he provides her and the comfort he gives to their children. The passages that dwell on their physical relationship are hot, steamy, sexy, believable, and in stark contrast to Mahsa’s cold and dutiful relationship with her husband.
The reader may recall Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which charts the course of Smith’s life from her beginnings as the child of a successful waitress to her unconditional determination to becoming an artist. The names of the great music, art and literary characters of the 1960s are sprinkled through the pages. In Under the Visible Life, the names of jazz greats similarly pepper the narrative, as idols, as friends, as great musical artists. Katherine had a real life with these folks; Mahsa, except for the latter portion of her life, seems, by comparison, to have learned and experienced little.
An aneurysm ends Katherine’s life prematurely. I found myself missing her and resenting Mahsa’s late-life good fortune. It is Mahsa who is there to play the piano, to make a solo recording, to mourn the loss of her dear friend, and to be with her own very first love, to love him and be well loved in return.
It is a terribly sad tale and, like certain jazz tunes, flounders a little toward its conclusion. There are no happy endings here, just great music to console the listener, and the reader. Echlin has taken us into the jazz world of the 1950s and ’60s, a world unlikely to be rekindled, but with a certain flavour of melancholy and intensity that should not be forsaken by us.