William Fiennes has somehow escaped me until now - maybe because autobiography isn’t one of my favourite genres, except when it’s a person I’m really interested in. But I saw the Snow Geese reviewed on another book blog (Dovegreyreader, who raved about it) and then found the Music Room in a remaindered book shop for £2.99.
I read it quickly - it’s refreshingly short - and with more pleasure than almost anything else I’ve read in a long time. The prose is beautiful and the way he takes readers into the world of the child is perfectly done. I can’t believe it’s only his second book.
William Fiennes was brought up in a moated castle (Broughton in Oxfordshire) though it’s never named in the book. Apparently he wanted every reader to imagine their own perfect castle as they read (interview here). But although his childhood was more privileged than most, he was lonely, being about 10 years younger than his nearest siblings. The castle became his playground, the film set for his imagination.
The family’s outwardly idyllic existence was overshadowed by tragedy. An older brother, Thomas, had been killed aged 3 in a freak accident before William was born. His eldest brother, Richard, suffered severe epilepsy that left him brain-damaged and sometimes violent. One of the most poignant moments in the book is the one where William comes round the corner of a secluded part of the garden -
“I saw Dad standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped. He didn’t move.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
He said he was asking the house for some of its strength.”
The book also explores the murky history of epilepsy and the effect that it has had on families and communities over the centuries, being associated either with witchcraft or divine revelation. I couldn’t help thinking about the ‘lost prince’, George V’s son John, who was hidden away from the public gaze until he died at the age of 13. William Fiennes’ brother survives into adult-hood, but the effect on the family is profound. One reviewer called the book 'jaw-droppingly beautiful' and it is.