Brian McNeill’s To Answer The Peacock

cover art for to answer the peacockDebbie Skolnik wrote this review.

Well, if you’ve heard the CD of the same name, you’ve also heard the first chapter of this book. (If you haven’t heard the CD … well, what are you waiting for? It’s one of my favorite CDs of the year (or even the past couple of years)! See my review of it.

But I digress; I’m supposed to be reviewing the book of the same name.

Alex Fraser, a busker who plays the fiddle, is working the streets of Rennes in France, and doing quite well entertaining an affluent audience. He needs to make some money so he can visit his lady love, Eleanor, with whom he has an ongoing stormy relationship. Amongst his audience is a young boy, fiddle case in hand, who clearly seems to be on the same musical wavelength as Alex. Also within earshot, and not so benign, is an itinerant old beggar and fiddler whose mental status seems a bit precarious, and who clearly covets Alex’s fiddle, since his own is not in playing condition, having only three strings and a body that’s scratched and scarred.

An altercation with said beggar ends with Alex’s fiddle in pieces, and the gendarmes hauling Alex off to the lockup for brawling in public and worse yet, hitting a policeman.

Unfortunately, Alex has a bit of a checkered past. He’s been in jail before, accused of killing his wife. The local police do a good job of roughing him up before letting him go; he is saved from a worse beating by the intervention of one of the police higher-ups. He is given back the remains of his fiddle and shoved out the door.

Once back on the street, he’s rushing to beat the clock; Eleanor has given him a deadline for his appearance, but unfortunately his unplanned tangle with the law prevents him getting to her on time. When he arrives, he finds that she has gotten tired of his unreliability; the note she left says she’ll see him someday, maybe. Disheartened, he returns to his car, to interrupt a break-in in progress. He decides to leave well enough alone, but the person spots him and gives chase. They almost have a physical confrontation, but Alex inadvertently stumbles on several other people, and his pursuer disappears.

The other people turn out to be Breton nationalists – Nathalie, Patrik and Rene, and Alex holes up with them for a while, nursing the wounds he’s sustained in his encounters with the police. Patrik, the leader of the nationalists, is off planning a protest at a nuclear site, and Alex is left alone with Nathalie. Somehow, all thoughts of Eleanor fade, and Alex finds himself attracted to Nathalie. She takes him to a Fest-Noz, a Breton village dance, and in the first of a series of twists of fate, meets Nathalie’s brother, who turns out to be the police officer who let him go in Rennes. Alex’s involvement with the Breton nationalists is a continual thread running through the book.

The plot gets ever more convoluted from this point. The pivotal point of the story is that when Alex finally opens his fiddle case, expecting to see the remains of his fiddle, he finds a priceless Stradivarius in its place. The switch was done during the car break-in: the question is why?

Solving that mystery takes up the rest of the book. In his quest to find out, and to get back his own fiddle (for he finds he makes better music on his own instrument) he crosses paths with the rich, famous and corrupt, and sees more of the seamy side of life than any one person should care to. He travels to various other places in France, returns to his native Scotland, and winds up on the remote island of Colrhanna where he runs his attacker to ground. The book closes where it started, in Rennes. The whole adventure has occupied about three weeks in the real world.

McNeill is a very good descriptive writer, particularly when he’s talking about what he knows best: music and musical instruments. His descriptions of the psychology of busking, and the Fest-Noz in Brittany, ring very true. He’s clearly spent a lot of time traveling, and it shows when he talks about the various locales in which his story is set.

But … I’m sorry to say I have a problem with the plot. It seems too fantastic, too contrived to be credible. Yes, I know it’s fiction but it’s not supposed to be fantasy, I don’t think, and it feels more like that to me. McNeill’s got a very creative imagination – I give him that – to be able to dream up this story, which I think would have worked better as a cinematic presentation rather than a book. Alex is a fascinating character, but there’s a lot we don’t know about him; his past is alluded to many times, but never fully explained. To be fair, there was a previous book about Alex (The Busker, currently out of print although there are plans afoot to reprint it eventually) and the missing pieces of his past are probably there.

I don’t find the other characters to be very well-developed; how can they be when there are so many of them, there is so much action taking place, and the book is relatively short (only 255 pages)?

I really, really wanted to be able to give this book the same unqualified praise that I’ve lavished on McNeill’s music; unfortunately, I cannot do that. Despite my reservations, however, I found the book interesting, since it’s set in places I have yet to go but would like to visit someday.

And by the way …who is the peacock who needs answering (as in the book’s title)? You get pretty far into the book before you find out. So if you want to know, you will have to pick up a copy. It can be ordered directly from McNeill via his Web site.

(Black Ace Books, 1999)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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