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The Three Muses by Martha Anne Toll

Martha’s prose is like crystal; a fluid that has become a solid. It leaps amongst the poses of ballet and lingers in the memory-haunting nature of song. It is like the facets of a transparent gemstone, cut around the three muses of discipline, song and memory and reflecting the story’s three characters: a musically gifted psychiatrist, a ballerina and a choreographer.

There are glimpses in this book. There is dominance and abuse; or is it obsession and art? There is cruelty; or is it protection? There is honorable renunciation; or is it a failure to embrace life?

At its core the story is a romance, an eternal triangle, but one with all the interlocking mysteries of the human mind. Self-awareness and memory and circumstance makes a man, makes a woman. For two of the three main characters, the traumas of the past are written into the story: the story of a child who survives a Nazi deathcamp because he can sing to the officers and the story of a child who survives the death of her alcoholic mother through dancing. The third, the choreographer, is an eminence grise, with his own, hinted-at, past of escape. The choreographer: the person who makes the ballet and lurks in the wings of the stage; the person invisible to the audience, who emerges at curtain-call.

The reader sees through the minds of the two main protagonists, catching at the scintillations of their virtues and their failings. The reader never sees the mind of the choreographer, and the author never puts him in a box. He is always reflected, back and forth, never transparent but undoubtedly brilliant.

The ballets performed in The Three Muses are mostly imaginary, invented by Martha, choreographed and set to music by Martha, allowing her to put the reader inside the creative process. The songs sung to German officers are real, and relentlessly upbeat. You can listen to them on YouTube, sung by bright treble voices. The deathcamp horror Martha evokes is claustrophobic and sweaty. The ballet world is claustrophobic and sweaty too. Beauty and the strivings and failings of humanity exist side by side. Even, dare I say it, beauty and evil. For where does human failure end and evil begin?

On the surface this is a simple book, a love triangle, and the clarity of the prose might deceive you into thinking it has a simple message. But it doesn’t. Eternal questions are asked. There are no pat answers and no sweeping historical perspectives. There is the nitty gritty of panic reactions, dirty clothes and friends who know you better than you do.

If you like a book that is going to challenge you and linger with you, and maybe leave you unsated, unsatisfied, then The Three Muses is for you.

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