Michel Faber's 2002 novel THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE was a sprawling, splendid novel, large in scale and hefty in size. His new offering, THE COURAGE CONSORT, contains three novellas no less dazzling, despite their shorter length and smaller scope.
In the title novella, the Courage Consort is "the seventh-most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world." Secluded in a Belgian chateau to rehearse a fiendishly difficult piece by a contemporary composer, the five singers soon reveal that their relationships are as dissonant as the music they perform. When tragedy strikes, the members of the Courage Consort, particularly Catherine Courage, must reevaluate their commitments to their music and to each other.
The second novella, entitled "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," is set in the medieval English city of Whitby. Siân is a young archaeologist who --- literally and figuratively --- carries remnants of war-torn Bosnia with her, and who is haunted each night by dreams "of being first seduced, then murdered." She soon meets an alluring stranger named Magnus who, despite his ancient name, ridicules the history that Siân reveres. The two of them uncover a two-hundred-year-old "murder" mystery with a surprising twist.
In the final novella "The Fahrenheit Twins" is a boy named Marko'cain and a girl named Tainto'lilith. Raised in a frigid climate by their anthropologist parents studying a polar tribe, the two are growing up in an atmosphere of "benign neglect." Left primarily to their own devices, and without any external cultural or social influences, the two develop their own set of primitive rituals and superstitions. When their mother dies, the two children set off to "wait for a signal from the universe as to the best thing to do with the body." In this modern-day Hansel and Gretel tale, the siblings' quest leads them to reevaluate their assumptions about their parents' relationships, the nature of their work, and the structure of their family.
In each of these brief novellas, Faber constructs a wholly developed world, whether it be a bleak polar outpost or a claustrophobic Belgian forest. These settings help envelop the reader in the story and create an environment as rich and lush as any full-length novel. With THE COURAGE CONSORT, Faber proves himself a master of creating imaginative, engrossing fiction, whether slight or sprawling.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl