Review: Sonata for Miriam by Linda Olsson

us-cover-compressedSonata for Miriam by Linda Olsson is about silence and loss. On the day his daughter Miriam dies, musician Adam Anker visits a War Memorial Museum in New Zealand, where he finds a photograph of a man who shares the name he was born with, Adam Lipski, and a note from Adam’s sister. Putting that information aside as he grieves the loss of his daughter, he returns to the mystery of his past a year later. His quest for answers takes him to Krakow, Poland, where he meets an old friend of Lipski’s who can fill in the blanks of his past for him. There is also some unfinished business with Cecilia, the mother of his daughter, who he hasn’t been in contact with for 19 years- the entirety of their daughter’s life.

Adam’s mother was silent about their family, where they came from, and who his father was. As frustrated as Adam had been throughout his life about this lack of fundamental information, he did the very same thing to his daughter Miriam. He never told her anything about her mother, even though she had begun to ask, and with her death he regretfully could never make that right.

Cecilia has lived alone on the island where she spent her childhood summers for the entire time she and Adam have been apart. The symbolism in the fact that both Adam and Cecilia live on islands, worlds away from each other, wasn’t lost on me- we humans are all islands in a sense, but these two cherish their solitude more than most and shy away from human connection. Cecelia’s story takes some major twists- large events worthy of their own separate novel. One important thing we find out is why she gave Adam the painful choice of being her partner or being Miriam’s father (one or the other, not both).

I thought that after nearly two decades of silence, Cecilia would crave information about the daughter she let go the way the desert craves the rain. Adam awakened long-buried feelings in Cecilia, and he does tell her about Miriam eventually, but it feels like Adam is the one who needs to tell, rather than Cecilia is the one who needs to hear. The beautiful sonata he has written for their daughter is what finally unlocks the silence between them.

This book has a dreamlike quality that I enjoyed, although, as often happens with dreams, I wasn’t always clear about what was going on. The book is divided into 6 sections, with the first three narrated by Adam, four and five narrated by Cecilia, and the 6th back to Adam. The transition was a little disorienting. When I realized there was a new narrator I had to go back and re-read several pages with that new voice in my head. At some point, maybe about 100 pages in, Adam starts speaking directly to Cecilia as if she is the reader. When Cecilia takes over, she is speaking directly to Adam as if he is the reader. It took some getting used to. However, I enjoyed the book for it’s exquisite prose, and would recommend it to those with an appreciation for beautiful language.

Linda Olsson is also the author of the acclaimed novel, Astrid and Veronika. You can visit the author’s website HERE. Thanks to Penguin for sending Sonata for Miriam for me to review.

16 Responses

  1. I love the premise of the book, but it sounds like it might confuse me. Thanks for your review.

  2. This sounds like an interesting novel. I have heard wonderful things about Astrid and Veronika, but I haven’t had a chance to read that one yet either. Thank you for the wonderful review, Lisa.

  3. nice review, Lisa.

  4. This is one review I was happy to read. I was wondering about this book >>thanks so much.

  5. It was sounding like a book I wouldn’t be interested in until you got to the Astrid and Veronica part. Someone recently recommended A & V to our book club. So maybe I need to read it first and then decide about this new book. Thanks for the review.

  6. I’m reading this right now, I’m about halfway through, and so far I agree with you for the most part. The writing is absolutely gorgeous but at times I find myself confused about what exactly is going on. Now I’m scared that I’ll be even MORE confused when it gets to Cecilia’s parts! I think that I’m going to end up liking the book, but it is taking some time to settle into the story for me.

  7. I’ve heard mixed things about this one. I almost bought it this weekend, but ended up putting it back. The narrator switch does sound a little confusing.

    • Pls try it. The narration switch is natural, as you will see.

      Linda from wintry Auckland

      • Dear Ms. Olsson,

        You write beautiful prose, have read both your novels. Our book discussion group is meeting tomorrow, 4/13/10, to discuss “Sonata for Miriam.” I had no trouble with the change of narrative voices between Adam and Cecilia, but I am still puzzled about what actually happened to Cecilia and why she made Adam choose between her and their child. I am assuming the man who died on the “fishing” trip was her stepfather, and the implication is that he was sexually abusing her, and she refused to talk about it. But, I still don’t understand the “choice” she imposed on Adam.
        Any chance you might have a minute to give me a quick note on this? I would appreciate it immensely.

        Thank you for your time . . . and keep writing so my group can talk about your books!!

        Best regards, Sandra Cousens

  8. Nice review Lisa. I’d like to read this book one of these days. I have Astrid & Veronika but haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet.

  9. Thanks for all the great comments.

    Heather, I look forward to your review. I thought Cecilia’s part was actually less confusing and more straightforward than Adam’s part.

  10. Don’t worry about the narrator switch. There was just no other way for me to write this story. Cecilia is such a fiercely private person that I couldn’t leave it to anybody else to speak for her. Try her!

  11. Hi Linda, thanks for stopping by! Once I realized who was ‘speaking’ I settled in and it was fine, and I agree, who else could speak so effectively for Cecilia? You write so beautifully. Thanks again for your comment.

  12. This story sounds very interesting, and although the writing does sound a bit confusing at times, I think I might try this one. I hadn’t yet seen a review for this book. Thanks!

  13. […] Lisa at Books on the Brain […]

  14. This is the first novel that I have read by Linda Olsson. The prose is beautiful and it impressed me that a novel of this small size manages to successfully convey its scope of time and place. I understand that Cecelia was traumatized by the sexual abuse and I assume accidental death of her stepfather. I can even understand how that could prevent her from maintaining a long term relationship with Adam, despite her love for him. It’s still hard to understand how she could give her child. I suppose she felt that she couldn’t stay with Adam, because of her own childhood trauma, and yet she still loved him. So perhaps giving him their child was an indication of her love.

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