It’s a real pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for A Song Unsung, the fifth novel from Fiona Cane, and to share my review. Independently published on 27th May, this lovely book is now available via Amazon both as an e-book (free via Kindle Unlimited) and in paperback. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours (and to the author) for the invitation and support, and for arranging an advance reading e-copy.
This isn’t the first time I’ve read a book from Fiona Cane. I featured an interview with her way back in August 2015, just after the publication of The Other Side of the Mountain: you’ll find it here if you’d like to read it again, and when I finished by saying “put my name down for the next one too please”, I really hadn’t expected it to be six years later! I then went on to read the book a few months later – I thought it’d be one I’d enjoy when I first spotted it, but never expected to love it quite as much as I did. Set in Haiti, there were images in that book that I’ve never forgotten – the writing was incredibly strong, and the story one of the most gripping and emotionally engaging I’d come across in a long time (you can read my full review again here).
But this time, it’s a UK setting, a coming-of-age story with a mystery at its heart, about an impressionable teenage girl who falls under the spell of a beautiful woman with a mysterious past… that immediately captured my imagination, and I was so looking forward to reading another book from this exceptionally talented author….
Soho 1958. Martha Palmer, an aspiring singer working in a coffee shop, is desperately short of cash. She’s been scouted by a photographer. The money’s good. But there’s a catch …
Sussex 1976. Nothing much happens in fourteen-year-old Natasha James’ life. Her mother has taken to her bed and her father, the local doctor, is preoccupied with his patients. But when the magnetic Martha Palmer moves into her village, Natasha is drawn into a glittery world of extravagant parties, steeped in the embroidered rhythms of jazz.
But who is the mysterious Martha Palmer? And why is she the keeper of so many secrets? Desperate to fill in the gaps of Martha’s past, Natasha uncovers a heart-breaking love story, the truth of which threatens to destroy all that she holds dear.
A dual timeline, when well done, is always one of my favourites; a coming of age story sometimes rather less so. But this was a book that entirely enchanted me from its opening pages, whisked me away into the worlds it created, and never lessened its grip until I reached the very end.
We first meet a young Martha in 1958, with her dreams of being a singer, working in Giovanni’s cafe in Soho’s Greek Street, desperately short of a way to meet the rent at the ladies’ boarding house she now calls home. Her desperation drives her to an act she immediately regrets – but also a chance meeting with Cee Cee, a black jazz musician who shows her an act of kindness, and then introduces her to the world of the Soho jazz clubs. She unexpectedly stands in as a singer with the Bo Rivers’ Five when the star they’re supporting fails to show up for a gig at the Flamingo, and we then follow her journey to unexpected stardom against a backdrop of the vibrant jazz scene of the late 1950s. And as we do, we also experience her strong friendships, her sometimes unwise relationships – all part of her own journey towards maturity.
In 1975, fourteen year old Natasha is bored and lonely – her mother has retreated to her bedroom, overwhelmed by the recent loss of her young son in a tragic accident, and her doctor father is too busy to show her much attention. She becomes fascinated by a glamorous new arrival – Martha – in their quiet Sussex village, drawn in by the family’s hedonistic lifestyle with its parties and music, happy to endure the torment by the teenage twin boys of the family if it means she can spend time in their orbit. She’s surprised when she discovers that Martha has a connection with her staid and boring father, and – while doing some growing up of her own – becomes obsessed with uncovering the secrets of their shared past, whatever the far-reaching consequences.
Both the main characters are quite superbly drawn – although Martha’s story is told in the third person and Natasha’s in first, they both have clear strong voices, and are entirely believable as their eyes are opened to the world around them. And although they always draw the eye, the supporting cast is quite wonderful too – in Martha’s story there’s the enigmatic Bo, the effusive and caring father figure Giovanni, supportive friend Becky, while the glittering Fairchild family and their large and exotic social circle play a large part in Natasha’s story. I really enjoyed too some of the smaller touches of characterisation – like that wonderful Greek chorus provided by the patients attending the doctor’s surgery, with their observations and judgements on the way the Fairchilds’ arrival is impacting their community.
And then there’s the setting. The 1950s Soho backdrop is far, far more than that – the way it’s recreated is vivid and intoxicating, something you feel through all your senses, that excitement of living through a time of change, the music playing an enormous part, along with the melting pot of people and their shared experiences, with every individual (no matter how peripheral) so wonderfully three-dimensional and real. You also feel – in your bones – the unrelenting heat of the Sussex summer, the standpipes, the shrivelling flowerbeds, the lowering water level in the swimming pool, really intensifying that overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia as the secrets of the past slowly emerge.
The central mystery was everything I wanted it to be – the pages turning ever faster, the inevitable approach of that moment of truth that will have such far-reaching consequences. The writing and storytelling is simply superb – this isn’t a book you simply read, you live within it, experience everything with its characters, seeing everything through the eyes of young Martha and Natasha. In Natasha’s case, of course, that lens is sometimes distorted – but quite perfectly so. Emotionally, the book is quite perfectly balanced – plenty of lightness and joy to counteract the darker themes that sometimes emerge.
I really loved this book – I approached it with high expectations, and every single one of them was exceeded. Very much recommended – and it might just be one of my books of the year.
If you’d like to find out more about the background and inspiration for the book, and to hear Fiona reading an extract, do take a look at the A Song Unsung Video on You Tube. And if you’d like to get a feel for the music that plays such a large part in the story, there’s a quite wonderful playlist on Spotify – you’ll find it here, and as I’m already a bit of a jazz fan I’ve had it on a loop since I first started reading.
About the author
Independent author, Fiona Cane, graduated from Exeter University with a degree in Philosophy. She worked in London in film PR, before moving back to Sussex where, as a married mother of two, she divided her time between coaching tennis and writing books. To date, she has published two mysteries, Killing Fame, and The Gate – the psychological thriller, When the Dove Cried – and the critically acclaimed literary thriller, The Other Side of the Mountain.