Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

It reminded me of the excellent documentary made a few years back, much gonged, about those back-up singers who provided the fire power on the choruses for many of the hit songs that have become embedded in the fabric of our lives. They were unsung, if you’ll excuse the pun. Only now are they receiving some belated recognition. Often they covered for the vocal limitations of the guy or gal front of stage – the ones that couldn’t make it up high. Of course, these anonymous performers all mostly had aspirations to be big-time too. When our own Renee Geyer tried her luck overseas, she became one of the best in the business when her own career didn’t take off in the US – and the stories she now tells of those times behind the limelight! Yes, Kim Echlin’s ‘Under the Visible Life’ reminded me of ’20 Feet From Stardom’. It is well worth seeing on DVD if you possess a love of music. As for the book – well….


The novel tells the story of two gifted musicians who – and it’s no spoiler to write it – never made it either. They were both jazz pianists. One, Afghani-American Misha, due to the openness of her parents mixed marriage, had to flee the country of her birth. Initially this took her to Pakistan where her mother and father were murdered for their brazenness, then on to the US. Katherine, also the result of a mixed marriage, is bought up by her struggling mother in Canada. From an early age both come under the thrall of jazz and the musicians, usually black, that drove that genre. They become gifted on the keyboards and when they eventually encounter each other, a fair way into the tome, they find they have an almost spiritual rapport on their chosen instrument.

At that time, though, jazz was soon to play second fiddle (sorry, just have a compulsion to pun) to new beats emanating from another form of popular music, rock. That, plus the other obstacles that fell before them, meant their careers, together or apart, were very much second tier. They were also women. It was still not easy for their gender to make it in a man’s world. Their trials and tribulations from the immediate post-war years through to the eighties are recounted.

I was attracted to the book by its retro cover, all orange and black. Once taken down from the shelf, the glowing reviews for it inside the front cover ensued a purchase. That it had music at its core was, for me, also a selling point.

But, perhaps because of the type of music they were so enamoured by, or the slow burning manner with which the story unfolded – usually not an issue – I failed to be fully drawn in. Without doubt it’s an interesting read, but my appreciation of it was not up there with those rave recommendations. One critic felt it delivered ‘…a clinic on how to conjure emotions readers didn’t even know they had. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.’ (Quill and Quire) I could not concur.

This, Kim Echlin’s fourth novel, comes from a writer obviously highly regarded in the land of the maple leaf. She has been praised for her daring in choice of subject matter; her elegiac, beautifully honed prose and her ability to produce story-lines that are uniquely arresting. Is that she failed to move me down to my gender? I wonder.


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