Of course Conroy was an accomplished jazz pianist. There is no chance a non-musician could write such a vivid story about a musically gifted little boy and about music the way Conroy does. I studied music through to my last year of school; I sing, play piano and guitar. Body & Soul gave me so many ‘a-ha!’ moments; musical moments I did not think could be put into words:
The feeling of music hanging around on a separate track from your conscious mind (“as if the music existed independently of him, flowing along in a corner of his brain” (61)); of gorgeous, traumatised Weisfeld explaining the magic of harmonics (72/73); and Fredericks witnessing Claude’s intense emotional connection to music (“He wanted to leave his body and go chase the music into whatever hyperspace had swallowed it” (96); and of music being delivered through a muse (329).
I am particularly interested in the influence of music on writing. This started long ago, and was revived during my interview with Willy Vlautin, American novelist and famous alt-country musician. I’ve come to believe a writer who can feel and understand musical rhythm has a more natural understanding of rhythm in writing. Frank Conroy is the best example of this yet.
Body & Soul is far-reaching in its cast and its complex weaving of storylines. The characters are unique and believable. I adored his mother Emma’s unexpected love-interest and also Weisfeld’s back story.
There is a palpable sense of Claude being an outsider, even though he finds his tribe:
They were, he realized, just kids, but there was something about them—their easy spontaneity, their recklessness, their almost manic self-absorption, the way in which they seemed completely taken up in the present moment—that made him uneasy. He did not for an instant think of himself as one of them. (69)
The book has flaws. I know that. But despite the (at times) lack of depth in Claude (and that he has life too easy) and the at times too-coincidental plot tie-ups, I love this book. It moved me deeply and I will buy a copy so I can re-read it over and over again.
Personal note: I originally read this because Frank Conroy was Paula Morris’ teacher at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Paula is my writing teacher at the University of Auckland.
This review also appears on Goodreads.