August Blue by Deborah Levy

A perfect summer read: We are introduced to a woman on holiday in Athens who will soon be off to the Greek island of Paros. A character “finding herself” on such a glamorous vacation is a familiar trope. But Levy does not disappoint. Her plot line veers off  immediately into surreal territory.

At a nearby flea market, she spies a woman with an elderly male companion. Wearing a black trilby hat and blue-masked, for we are still in the Covid era, the “mysterious” woman is buying a pair of wooden mechanical horses which prance about, led by a string, when their tails are pulled upright.

Both our central character and the woman she spies seem to instinctively sense each other’s presence. There’s wonderful detail in this rich scene, I can’t enumerate it all. But, for example, when she spies the woman who seems to disturb her so much, her vantage point is another stall filled with plastic statues of the Greek gods…whose names are invoked in this description.  I immediately sensed the presence of the gods was an omen that something uncanny was about to happen.

Elsa gets the idea that the intriguing woman buying two mechanical horses in an Athens flea market on a late summer day is herself. The novel is warped, in the best way woven, by her doppelgänger. Elsa stalks the woman but loses track of her. She does find her discarded Trilby hat, which she puts on. Elsa will keep the hat until the end of the novel.

Elsa M. Anderson, our woman who has a chance encounter with her double, has had another name as a child. She originally was Anne. That’s the name her foster parents gave her, who were well-meaning, but ineffectual people. Elsa doesn’t know who her birth mother is…and doesn’t want to know. She had been given the option of looking at her adoption papers but has refused. That offer had been made by Arthur, third in her sequence of parents.

Arthur is a legendary music teacher. He offered to adopt Elsa who he sensed was a child prodigy on the piano. In the world of August Blue, Elsa M. Anderson is one of the most recognizable names in the world: a great concert pianist.

Until her crisis, that is. During a concert at Vienna’s Golden Hall, during a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, she zoned out and started to play something else.

August Blue is full of references to music. If you don’t know the many pieces of classical music that are referenced in the novel, you could always play them on YouTube if you’re curious to hear them. There’s only one you should really hear: “Rach’s” (that’s how he’s nicknamed in the book) Second Piano Concerto. You should believe me when I say that you can’t not love it. Maybe you’ll get a start on the mystery of why Elsa can no longer play it. That secret is revealed at the end of the book.

During the course of her sabbatical from her life, Elsa dyes her hair blue. Arthur frets that she won’t be recognized when she goes on stage with blue hair. But it’s unclear that she will ever perform again.

It’s remarked in the novel that Elsa is “brutal”. She’s a formidable artist. That takes discipline and a willingness to make sacrifices that can be described as brutal. But Elsa is also hurting. Three versions of parentage and a hard, disconnected life. She’s alienated from herself. No wonder she literally sees herself across a flea market in Athens on a summer’s day. No wonder she turns her hair blue. She searches for her double. It becomes her quest. She might see her anywhere and seemingly nowhere. Her doppelgänger is like her but somehow different. And the difference is disturbing.

August Blue is a richly symbolic novel, embedded right through with numerous Freudian and Proustian associations. And full of glorious music, which is so vividly presented that you can nearly hear it, on the page. Elsa is a character who “lives in her head”, and “her novel” is a book of symbols you will want to open, and then reluctantly close. August Blue is a luminous book. On sale June 6th.