The Curfew by Jesse Ball

17 February, 2012

What a beautiful book. The Curfew by Jesse Ball was December’s choice for my book group, The Riverside Readers, about William, a former violinist, and his daughter Molly, living in what is now an authoritarian state. Ball keeps the state nameless and the period timeless and yet you cannot help but compare The Curfew with novels such as 1984 and Soviet era literature.

I have to confess I thought The Curfew would be a bleak and probably rather dry novel but Ball is a masterful writer and his novel is stark yet filled with vitality and not overpowering with emotion and poignancy. It cuts just the right balance between tragic and beautiful and manages to keep the tension throughout the tale while also shot through with humour.

William and Molly live a secluded life, keeping to themselves and out of trouble in a time where people’s lives are scrutinised by the secret police ever since the disappearance of Louisa, his wife. William is an epitaph writer who goes out to do his job while Molly goes to school. One day William bumps into an old friend who invites him to a meeting he is unable to refuse, leaving Molly behind with one of their neighbours, an old couple who were once puppeteers. As an anxious Molly awaits her father’s return, she seeks solace and an answer to her family’s predicament by telling their tale through a puppet show.

Ball uses a variety of fonts and spacing which enhances the playful nature of the words, the simple language and the metaphysical aspects of the story, especially the puppet play, to good effect. The way Ball tells the story in the present while all the while recounting what happened to William, his wife Louisa and their daughter Molly in the past is superb.

My favourite bit of the novel is when we discover William’s current job as an epitaph writer. He visits various people to puzzle out just the right epitaph for their recently deceased loved one and it’s beautifully done. It may sound morbid but Ball cleverly draws out the humour and sympathy and made me laugh out loud in places.

And in between the story you discover little nuggets of truth such as:

Yes, there are times when something is asked of us, and we find we must do it. There is no calculation involved, no measure of the necessity of the thing itself, the action that must be performed. There is simply an acknowledgement that we will do the thing in question, and then the thing is done, often at considerable personal cost.

There is a space in the playing of a virtuoso piece where the violinist must cease to think about the music, must cease thinking of fingerings, even of hands and violins, where the sound itself must be manipulated directly. At such times even to remember that one has hands, that one is playing, is disastrous.

He and Louisa look down into the cradle. The cradle is empty. Molly is traveling towards it, but has not yet arrived.

And one that made me laugh as it reminded me of the astronomer Tycho Brahe:

I have a gold nose that I bought once, do you know that? This was many years ago. Apparently people used to lose their noses form syphilis and then they would sometimes have gold noses.

At times, reading The Curfew felt as though I was reading a translated piece of fiction by an Eastern European or Soviet-era author. Ball’s writing makes you feel that way. It’s easy to fall into and will leave you feeling slightly stunned.