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Instruments of Darkness

by Nancy Huston

Nancy Huston’s most recent English-language novel, an intriguing counterpoint of musical and religious imagery, tells the story of a successful middle-aged novelist named Nadia and her efforts to exorcise the trauma of her disturbing family history.

Half of Instruments of Darkness is composed of excerpts from Nadia’s journal, “The Scordatura Notebook,” which she uses to confer with her muse, the devil. These entries introduce the reader to significant individuals in Nadia’s life, and slowly reveal the truth of her parents’ dysfunctional marriage. The rest of the book alternates straight narrative with chapters from Nadia’s work in progress, titled “The Resurrection Sonata.” The combination creates a story as exquisite and intricate as a Bach fugue.

Nadia’s novel focuses on the arduous existence of Barbe, a lonely child, orphaned at birth and separated from her twin brother, set in rural France during the 1600s. Barbe’s story recapitulates themes from Nadia’s life. Both characters lose a twin brother at birth. And despite the chronological distance between Barbe’s era and modern times, Huston defines both periods as brutally misogynist. She magnificently dramatizes a barbaric blend of patriarchy and religion that both fears and abhors female sexuality.

Patriarchy, religion, and sexuality also bear powerfully on Nadia’s own story as she considers the plight of her mother, Elise. A concert violinist, Elise abandons her career to satisfy the emotional demands of her husband, Ronald. Her desire to feed Ronald’s endless sexual appetite and to meet the expectations of her religion results in five children, several miscarriages, and finally, madness.

Throughout the novel, Nadia endeavours to grasp the meaning of such wretched discord. “Scordatura” means, in fact, a dissonant musical interval, the kind that aggravates rather than satisfies. While human relationships often result in cruel dissonance, Instruments of Darkness suggests that life resembles a fugue, with individual voices exploring their separate themes, ultimately combining in unison in search of meaningful resolution.


Reviewer: Donna Nurse

Publisher: Little, Brown


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 317 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-316-38020-2

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 1997-4

Categories: Fiction: Novels