Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT GHOST VARIATIONS by @jessicaduchen #TuesdayBookBlog

Today’s team review is from Liz, she blogs at

#RBRT Review Team

Liz has been reading Ghost Variations by Jessica Duchen


Set in 1930s Britain and strongly based on real events, Ghost Variations is resonant with attitudes and feelings relevant to us now. Jessica Duchen tells the story of renowned violinist Jelly d’Aranyl towards the end of her career. At 42, she feels the need for a new purpose which is partly fulfilled by a series of free concerts, open to everyone, in the finest cathedrals in the land.

Jelly and her sister had been brought to England from Hungary, when she was in her teens and Jelly’s considerable talent had already been acknowledged. She had been the muse of Bartok and Ravel and was in great demand for concert venues. But while her sister, Adila chose marriage to a prominent diplomat, Jelly decided that the demands of her art meant total devotion, excluding marriage. But this decision may have been finalised by the tragic death of Sep Kelly, her one true, but unconsummated love, during the First World War.

One cannot help feeling empathy for Jelly, who shows great affection for her erstwhile assistant and companion, Anna and kindness to strangers such as a Jewish pianist who has fled from Germany. Her life is taken over by the desire to obtain and perform the long hidden violin concerto of Robert Schumann, a close friend of her great-uncle, violinist Joseph Joquem. The manuscript is traced to Berlin but Jelly’s partially Jewish ancestry makes it impossible for her to follow up, so against her inclinations she enlists the help of her sister’s close friend Erik Palmstierna, the Swedish ambassador to England.

The novel recreates the glamorous environment of the London cognoscenti, where Jelly and Adila socialise with pianist, Myra Hess, Sir Adrian Boult and all the fashionable people of culture. In contrast we glimpse through a window into Hitler’s pre-war Germany, seeing the manipulation of values made by Goebbels. The increasingly anti-foreign atmosphere in England and the corrosive effect of newspaper articles, build up the tension as the story moves towards 1938.

This novel provokes thought on so many topics; the problems for a female artist in her mature years, the sad waste of lives in both wars and in Hitler’s Germany and observations of the philosophies of spiritualism and eugenics. But it is also the story of the fascinating Jelly d’Aranyl, her friends and her passions, at perhaps one of the most interesting times in history.

Book Description

The strangest detective story in the history of music – inspired by a true incident.
A world spiralling towards war. A composer descending into madness. And a devoted woman struggling to keep her faith in art and love against all the odds.
1933. Dabbling in the fashionable “Glass Game” – a Ouija board – the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, one-time muse to composers such as Bartók, Ravel and Elgar, encounters a startling dilemma. A message arrives ostensibly from the spirit of the composer Robert Schumann, begging her to find and perform his long-suppressed violin concerto.
She tries to ignore it, wanting to concentrate instead on charity concerts. But against the background of the 1930s depression in London and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, a struggle ensues as the “spirit messengers” do not want her to forget.
The concerto turns out to be real, embargoed by Schumann’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration: it was his last full-scale work, written just before he suffered a nervous breakdown after which he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It shares a theme with his Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) for piano, a melody he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave.
As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, where the manuscript is held, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the concerto. When the Third Reich’s administration decides to unearth the work for reasons of its own, a race to perform it begins.
Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess, and a young music publisher who falls in love with her – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.
In the ensuing psychodrama, the heroine, the concerto and the pre-war world stand on the brink, reaching together for one more chance of glory.

About the author

Jessica Duchen

Jessica was born in London. She first tried to write a novel at the age of 12 and found much encouragement from a distinguished author and a literary agent. After studying at Cambridge, she worked as an editor in music publishing and magazines for ten years.
Her latest novel, Ghost Variations, is based on a true incident in the 1930s: the bizarre rediscovery of the long-suppressed Schumann Violin Concerto. “This is a hugely atmospheric and thought-provoking book featuring fascinating characters… It evokes a period pregnant with both promise and menace” (Music & Vision Daily).
The earlier novels focus on the tensions and cross-currents between family generations, including a painful exploration of the effects of anorexia (Rites of Spring) and the rearing of a child prodigy (Alicia’s Gift) to the long-term effects of displacement and cultural clashes (Hungarian Dances and Songs of Triumphant Love). 
Jessica’s journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, plus numerous music magazines. She gives pre-concert talks at venues including the Wigmore Hall, the Southbank Centre and Symphony Hall Birmingham. Having created concert versions of Alicia’s Gift, Hungarian Dances and Ghost Variations, she often narrates their performances. Her play A Walk through the End of Time, introducing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, has been performed at music festivals in the UK, France and Australia. 
Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two cats. She enjoys long walks, cooking, and playing the piano when nobody can hear her. Facebook page:…

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12 thoughts on “Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT GHOST VARIATIONS by @jessicaduchen #TuesdayBookBlog

  1. Hi Rosie – this looks a fascinating read … definitely interesting to read and find out more about that time and how Schumann’s work got ‘lost’ … definitely added to my list … cheers Hilary


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