Song of the Nightingale

Written by Marilyn Pemberton
Review by Julia Stoneham

Marilyn Pemberton’s unconvincing novel takes on the fascinating and complex subject of the practice of the castration of young boys in order to preserve their unbroken voices, which was prevalent in Italy at the time in which it is set, 1756.

Introducing itself as “a tale of two castrati,” the book doesn’t deliver on that. While it is true that the boys’ stories form part of the narrative, they do not drive it, because the central character, who gives the first-person account of things, is Philippe Agostini, the exploited general factotum to the powerful Count whose beautiful wife, la Contessa Eleanora, is his mistress.

Those parts of the novel that should shock and concern us become trivialised by ineffective prose and a lack of both focus and construction, which have the effect of distracting more than informing. Philippe is the most original and best developed of the plethora of poorly defined characters in this novel, which could and should have been a better piece of fiction than it is. As it stands, it seems to resemble an unrevised first draft more than a finished, properly edited publication.

The book is nicely presented with a good layout and an attractive cover. It is without doubt, a fascinating subject. All I can suggest is an extensive rethink, a complete rewrite and a competent editor.