Odette, by Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is an author with a gift for taking pre-existing artistic material and reworking it so that it sits within a convincing, well-researched context. Among her previous novels is Ghost Variations, its narrative telling of the violinist Jelly d'Aranyi's tracking-down of the closeted Schumann concerto for her instrument, and describing so convincingly the 1930s musical milieu in which it all happened, not least in London.
Her latest offering is Odette -- a 21st-Century Fairytale, and it makes for gripping reading. Mitzi, a struggling freelance journalist (Duchen writes from experience here), is startled by a swan hurtling through her window and lying injured on the floor, and here begins Duchen's new take on the story of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
The swan is, of course, Odette, a Russian princess from the early 19th century who has been cursed by a rival of her father's to roam the earth as a swan during the day, reverting to human form at night. Only the avowed love of a man can restore her to existence as a woman, and Mitzi's somewhat erratic brother, Harry, seems to be fitting the bill.
And so the story continues, Duchen finding ingenious parallels between the libretto of the ballet and what could happen in today's cluttered pattern of life. Duchen is brilliant at conveying the flavour of today and its mores, though I do think her naming of the city in which this all happens (I guess Cambridge) as Cygnford is somewhat contrived. Her recounting of the heartbreaking scene where Odette flaps desperately at the windows of a party where her would-be rescuer is falling for another woman is imaginatively of our time.
Appropriately, I finished my reading just after watching on television the Royal Ballet's production of Swan Lake from Covent Garden. I had been seething over the audience's moronic insensitivity, crashing in with crass applause too soon at the end. The ending of Jessica Duchen's Odette put me into a very different mood.
* Odette is published by Unbound, and is available on Amazon.
Christopher Morley

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