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I should preface this review by saying that, disappointingly, in the last couple of years I have too rarely found time to start reading a good novel, and even less frequently succeeded in finishing one.
The Waco Variations, written by the American pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo, kept me up late into the night, and demanded to be finished. Perhaps no further recommendation is needed, but you probably want to know more about what makes this such a great read, so…
The Waco Variations is a novel in two parts, written in engaging down-to-earth prose, telling the story of its chief protagonist with, in equal measure, sympathy and economy.
The first part of the story begins in April 1993 (although the backstory is later told in flashbacks). Sixteen-year-old Cassie watches her world burn to the ground, quite literally, as agents of the US government storm Mount Carmel in Waco Texas, bringing to a horrifyingly violent end their siege of the compound that was home to David Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult.
Seventy five people (including Cassie’s parents, her piano teacher, and Koresh himself) die from gunshot wounds and in the fire that engulfs the compound.
From this devastating starting point, the novel adeptly charts Cassie’s reemergence from darkness and grief. Moving far away to Oregon, where she is cared for by her grandmother, she struggles to build a new life centred around two goals: to play the piano better, and to learn how to be normal.
For the second part of the book, the narrative shifts forwards a few years. With remarkable symmetry, this new chapter begins as another shocking event shakes the American psyche: the September 11th 2001 terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers.
Cassie is now a music graduate taking her first steps as a freelance performing musician. Perpetuateing her careful habit of burying her life and her loss in her music, trouble is inevitably brewing; the fresh chain of events triggers reawakened trauma, and Cassie soon finds herself all at sea…
While the author tells us that the novel isn’t autobiographical, it resonates with an authenticity that surely originates in the intersections between her own life and that of her protagonist.
Cassie inhabits musical institutions where Rizzo too has studied and taught, and pursued a career that no doubt includes similarities. There are other shared experiences too, as Rizzo has explained in a recent article:
“How could the story not reflect my life’s work of living inside musical lines? How could my own experience of trying to find “normal” after leaving a rigid Seventh-day Adventist upbringing not work its way into this story? Bach, Beethoven and Brahms taught me to think. The piano allowed me to express what I couldn’t say verbally. Classical music allowed me to play “at the doorstep of eternity” — throwing open the narrow, concrete doors of a closed religious system into a universe of timeless beauty. It healed me. Any doubt I feel, any loss I mourn, I know that music not only accompanies me, but it has been there first. Where words fail, music remains.”
As such, we might wonder whether The Waco Variations is one part fiction, one part personal reflection. And I’m sure that for me, this was significant; though at face value my life seems to have little in common with Cassie’s, the truth is that for me too the intersections are profound…
The Waco Variations succeeds as a novel on multiple levels.
Firstly, it works as an engaging story, plain and simple. I was intrigued by the narrative context and development; at every turn I was keen to find out what would happen next, and how Cassie would respond. This is storytelling at its best. The pacing, too, is perfect.
Secondly, it succeeds as a portrayal of human character. In all it’s grit and glory, Rizzo shares a measured exploration of faith and loss, grief and doubt, love, desolation, and the long-term impact of PTSD.
The author’s magnificently humane depiction of our shared condition doesn’t just extend to Cassie, either; Rizzo brings to life a stellar cast of secondary characters, all believable, all flawed, all likeable. With snippets of information and in some cases the briefest of glances, even the most minor of characters here is three-dimensional and rivetingly alive.
Thirdly, as I’ve already hinted, the book succeeded for me as a mirror, a reflective tool. I don’t think a chapter passed without me spending a few moments pausing for thought. It is the rare skill of a good writer to illuminate the bond that exists between their characters and their readers, speaking directly to the soul.
Like Cassie (and Rizzo) I have struggled in my past due to my involvement with the extreme beliefs and pathology of religious groups. I have experienced doubt, confusion, loss and loneliness. And like many reading this review, I too have carved out a life in music.
Here, finally, is perhaps the book’s greatest triumph of all. Unlike many who might attempt such a novel, Rizzo writes with genuine authority about music. Her exploration of what it takes to develop as a musician, the commitment to excellence, self-discipline, the inner convictions, doubts and sheer tenacity, should perhaps be required reading for anyone considering a career as a classical pianist.
Most powerfully of all, she explores the transformative power that music, good music, can have in all our lives.
Perhaps I should say no more, and leave further analysis of this rather wonderful novel to the literary critics. Suffice to say I really enjoy The Waco Variations;
no, I loved it… to the last page!
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