Monday, 11 May 2020

Guest review by Judith Allnatt: TRIO by Sue Gee

"A beautiful novel about loss, the process of grieving and coming alive again to beauty, friendship and love."

Judith Allnatt writes short stories and novels for adults. Her novels have been variously shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature, the East Midlands Book Award and featured as a Radio 5 Live Book of the Month. Short stories have appeared in the Bridport Prize Anthology and the Commonwealth Short Story Awards, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service.

Judith’s latest novel, The Silk Factory, is an eerie story of love and memory drawing on both the Luddite weavers’ rebellions in the nineteenth century and a modern day haunting. She
 has lectured widely on Creative Writing for over two decades and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She lives with her family in Northamptonshire and is working on her fifth novel. For more information and blog posts see Judith’s website. 
Twitter: @judithallnatt

is a beautiful novel about loss, the process of grieving and coming alive again to beauty, friendship and love. The main character, Steven Coulter, is not part of the eponymous musical trio but a teacher who tragically loses his young wife and is paralysed by grief. A year later when a colleague, Frank Embleton, invites him to a concert given by his sister and two friends, the music moves him. He begins to open to new possibilities for involvement in the world beyond his daily classes and his lonely house on the Northumberland moors and to the chance of new relationships.

Music is a healing power throughout, allowing feelings to form and be acknowledged. It releases the expression of feelings that are beyond words, as when a fellow teacher, morose Mr Dunn, veteran of the Somme, weeps to hear a young chorister sing Once in Royal David’s City.

Many of the pleasures of Sue Gee’s novels are here. Remote moorlands, Bamburgh Castle, Lindisfarne and the country house, with its pele tower and haha, where the trio practises, are lyrically described. Her subtle observation of human behaviour and her nuanced dialogue provide tantalising glimpses of her characters’ secret desires.

Set in 1937, the novel balances themes of stability and fragility. The English country house seems timeless with its ancient cedar still with its childhood swing. Its grandfather clock acts as a symbol of continuity with its rising moon and reliable quarter hour peal. Yet beneath this is the continuous sense that all can be turned in a moment: through the ravages of TB, the sense of war stalking ever closer; through loves revealed and rejection turning worlds upside down.

In a bold move, the story transitions from 1937 to the present day in the last section, and follows the next generation of Steven’s family. Although this might seem disconcerting and a challenge for the reader to engage with a new character, I quickly became fond of Geoff and interested in his nostalgic journey to his past. At first I thought the main purpose of the section was to show the reader what had become of the original characters through and after the war. I soon came to realise that something much more subtle was also going on. Gee shows us the past inextricably bound up in the present; the strength of attachment to childhood places, memories triggered by chance encounters, the need, near the end of life, to make a pilgrimage to one’s roots and to honour one’s ancestors.

This is a gentle, thoughtful and elegiac novel where appreciating the texture of the writing is as enjoyable as working out the characters’ secrets. It has the rare depth of insight one has come to expect from Sue Gee’s novels and I found myself pondering on loss, love and time, long after the last poignant scene. 

Trio is published by Salt.


  1. I loved this, too. The first Sue Gee I read was THE HOURS OF THE NIGHT and I went on to read several others. She has such a gift for evoking character and landscape, and living in the moment. THE HOURS OF THE NIGHT is my favourite but this one too is among her best.