Music and Magic
A Review of the Lyric Novella Ceremonials
When you listen to some albums again and again, revisiting them over months and years and a lifetime, there builds a joy that comes from recognition. Not just an increasing familiarity with the notes and the sounds and the words, but a recognition and a remembrance of how your body feels while listening to that music.
That’s what happens when I listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Or The Woods. Or Tommy. I know every second of those albums. And I know, for example, that when the third song off Ziggy, “Moonage Daydream,” kicks in with the first guitar riff, there will be a buzz at the back of my neck, a click in my spine, a feeling of coming home.
Katharine Coldiron has listened to Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials in that way. It’s part of her body and soul. So much so that she wanted more. She wanted a conversation with the album, a creative chimera that came of the album but also built upon it. And so her lyric novella, Ceremonials, is born.
I’m speculating, of course, on Coldiron’s motives, not knowing the author personally. But the first words of her book are a command to “concentrate,” to notice every detail, every word. And when you do, when you surrender to the work as you might a beloved album, two things happen. One: You’re drawn into a fantastically gothic world of boarding schools and graveyards and ghosts, where two girls dare to love one another. And two: You understand music, this particular album but also the greater spectrum of music, in an entirely new way.
In Coldiron’s Ceremonials, Amelia and Corisande are two young girls at boarding school who find solace and love in one another. Corisande has died, though, suddenly, right before graduation. But has she? Because Amelia still hears her, sees her, and increasingly feels a tie to the school and its grounds that she can’t shake, long into her adulthood.
That’s the story on the page, and it’s one that evokes Jane Eyre’s cold fingers, chilled hallways, gruel. Moors, and myths, and magic. In fact, the characters mention Jane and her Helen in the same breath as Romeo and Juliet.
It was around the time I read those words that I remembered this is a work in conversation with another. So I rethought my approach to reading. Because if you compare, say, the chapters of Ceremonials with the number of tracks on the album Ceremonials, as we must do, they match. And if you’re a novice Florence and the Machine fan, like myself, and use one of the many lyrics sites online to decode her songs, and time your listening to each track with the chapter…
Here we get into how the author intended us to read her work. Did she envision this as the puzzle I turned it into? Did she see the multimedia experience that reading her book became? Maybe. Maybe not. For better and worse, readers will always turn an author’s work into their own, make meaning for themselves.
Either way, though, that’s how I read the rest of the book. One that compared and contrasted, involved words on the page and words in the ear. I had fun.
The story evokes thoughts of Jane Eyre’s cold fingers, chilled hallways, gruel. Moors, and myths, and magic.
And in the process I reimagined all those gothic classics and operatic stories, because here is a queer story cast back in time. A feminist-coming-of-age story, in an anti-female age. An insanely erotic story, with love and lust and obsession crossing rational lines. A deep, quiet exploration of grief, and the surreal nature of living when others we love die. All while accepting the truth of ghosts, Minotaurs, and labyrinths, along with bars and cars and the grit and gore of a city.
As Corisande, who occasionally takes over the narrative from Amelia, says, “not one or the other but both.” Reading this book is an exercise in duality and multiplicity in accepting the disparate aspects of the story. In many ways it represents the essential element of queerness, in defying the rules that say what a story, or a person, must be.
I am not a poet. I can’t knowledgeably speak to the mechanics of crafting such a book as this, the particular prowess and magic that Coldiron employs to make her creation. I can feel it, though. Feel the rhythm of her language, and the song that she’s composing with prose and poetry and music.
I love music in the obsessive way, and I produce works that are inspired by music. So I know it’s an extremely difficult thing to do, to evoke music in writing, to converse with it in a way that feels so intimate and skillful.
But here, from the first page, the magic is instant. So swift and sudden you don’t see the difficulty in its creation, like all the best writers manage. However you decide to read it, and whatever particular meaning you draw from it, concentrate. And surrender to a new classic.
REVIEWED BY AMY LEE LILLARD
Amy is the author of DIG ME OUT, coming soon from Atelier26 Books. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize and named one of Epiphany’s Breakout 8 Writers in 2018. Her writing appears in Foglifter, Off Assignment, The Adroit Journal, and others. Lillard is one of the broads behind Broads and Books, a funny and feminist book podcast building a better book community. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Pan-European program at Cedar Crest College, an MA in literature from Northwestern University, and a BA in English, journalism and psychology from the University of Iowa.