The migrant writer's preoccupation with second-language competence in Incidental Music belies this novel's utterly controlled composition. Eight dense chapters are evenly balanced between the intertwined stories of Petra Veselinovic, Martha Chancellor and Romola Ivanyi, who are brought together by cataclysmic rearrangements of history and geography in the twentieth century.
This is also a coming together of the worlds of academia, architecture and opera--three rarefied spaces from which the characters unfold narratives teeming with the conversation of their times. An excoriating denunciation of the endemic casualization of labour in the contemporary university system collides with a soapbox sermon on the state of housing and urban planning in First World metropolises, while the forgotten history of the 1956 Hungarian uprising forms the operatic backdrop to an equally buried herstory of lesbian love across Buda and Pest, cities that were eventually amalgamated as the capital of Hungary.
However, like a conductor intent on getting each and every note right, Lydia Perovic works with an authorial orchestration that sometimes interferes with the emotional charge of the music. Intriguing as the characters are, and as intricate as their couplings are, we never quite understand why they are attracted to each other. Perovic seems to intuit this but the story does not really transcend the stylistic device of verbiage and extended metaphor. For example, when Petra bemoans that she will "always wear the English language like clothes that are not entirely fitting," Martha, as if in belated response a couple of pages later, says, "A stream of words doesn't really inspire anyone to start undressing, no matter how seductive you think the words are." Indeed!
What Perovic does well is describe the descent into despair after the end of a relationship: the hopelessness, the utterly bizarre but entirely explicable acts of madness that illuminate the dark days of abjection. Nevertheless, when the surprise ending comes, it seems more a matter of wish fulfilment than a plausible redemption.
An indication of the bibliographic modality of the novel is the acknowledgements at the end that run to four pages and list the material that went into the making of the tale. And yet, the narrative may have fared better if Perovic had let go of the writerly baton and allowed the music to remain as incidental and fleeting as life itself. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next recital--this time in mezzo?