Underground Fugue, by Margot Singer

Margot Singer’s Underground Fugue is a novel that has not only subtext; it has background melody. In this novel, two parents and two children dance uncomfortably around each other in alternating chapters. Esther has returned to London to care for her terminally ill mother, Lonia. Next door, Javad wonders what his college student son, Amir, is really up to when he disappears late at night. Each chapter contains similar motifs to the one that came before, but with variations like the dueling melodies of a fugue.

The characters of Underground Fugue carry a lot of emotional baggage. Esther is still mourning her son and preparing to mourn her mother. Lonia, in a fog of painkillers, is slowly reliving her life in 1939 Czechoslovakia and Poland. Meanwhile, Javad is still angry over his long ago divorce and misses his family in Tehran. We don’t learn until much later what Amir is carrying and, until the conclusion, he feels a bit superfluous. All of the characters have to deal with their betrayals of the people in their lives, experience tunnels of one kind or another, traveling across vast geographical and emotional distances, and being outsiders everywhere they go.

Most novels with multiple protagonists will move their narratives closer together, so that all of them are involved with the same problem. That’s not what happens, quite, with Underground Fugue. Each of the characters is distinct. It’s more as though they met, then diverged, then came together before parting once more—over and over again. Because the chapters mimic the patterns of a fugue, I wondered more than once if I just wasn’t clever enough to work out what was going on in this novel. I’m not musician enough to pick up on all the references.

I have mixed feelings about Underground Fugue. There were parts I very much enjoyed. I sympathized with Lonia and Javad, but was more equivocal about Esther. I pitied Amir, who was mostly the wrong color at the wrong time and place. Because of the structure, however, I think the plot suffered for trying to be too baroque. (I had to make the pun.) Gimmicks like this rarely work; they tend to take over and detract from characterization and plotting. Those are the parts of books I love most, so I freely admit that I might be overly harsh on this book because of my own preferences.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration.


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