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Listening With The Inner Ear

Disturbance of the Inner Ear (Carroll and Graf, $25) is a novel that trades many conventions of storytelling to mix incident, emotion, history, and social observation. To the extent that Joyce Hackett’s debut novel is pure narrative, it’s about an orphaned former child prodigy, a brilliant young cellist named Isabel Masurovsky who finds herself alone in Italy without the means to support herself It’s about her past: her father, once a renowned pianist, was an inmate at Theresienstadt and raised his daughter to maintain a focus that would enable her to with stand any obstacle. It’s also about her present life, as she tries to live independently for the first time. And Disturbance of the Inner Ear is about the people Isabel meets and how they affect her: Giulio, a surgeon trying to outrun his life and Clayton, her student, who tries to hum over the friction in his.

This novel asks its readers to work unusually hard to confirm setting, determine who’s speaking, establish a relationship between characters, and understand what happened when. The effort can be frustrating, especially at the beginning of the novel, whose cold tone does not readily invite engagement. Yet the novel creates wholeness as it goes along, and its main ingredients—especially shrewdness and lyricism—accumulate into a new taste, a delicacy that turns out to be sublime. What readers might lose in comfort and even in intimacy with the novel’s main character, they gain in insight—”Europeans don’t lose ourselves in grandiose wanting the way Americans do. Our empires are over. Everything matters slightly less…”—and in beauty: “There is hardly any place more soothing than a luthier’s. A balm of perfect humidity balances the mind and dampens sorrow.”  

Patricia Grossman is the author of three novels. She lives in Brooklyn.