Karen Comer’s debut, Grace Notes, is a masterpiece of a YA verse novel, about what happens when the paths of a young busking violinist, Grace, and an aspiring street artist, Crux, collide during the covid-19 pandemic. Set in one of the most locked-down cities in the world – Melbourne, during 2020.
This song has a grace note,
a tiny note that’s there for embellishment
but can easily be ignored,
Tonight, I add it in –
We can all do with an extra note
Grace Dalfinch is a talented violinist who longs to play contemporary music in bars, but her mum forbids her. James Crux is an aspiring street artist who promised his dad he wouldn’t paint in public until he’s finished school. When Crux witnesses Grace’s impromptu performance on a deserted tram, he’s inspired to paint her and her violin; and when Grace stumbles across her portrait in a Melbourne alley by an anonymous street artist, she sets out to find its creator.
This verse novel weaves Grace and Crux together like the notes on a music score, or the brush strokes on a brick wall, just waiting to be filled with art. The narrative flows across the pages in a smooth and lilting manner, taking the reader along for the experience.
I have only read one novel set during the pandemic, The Goodbye Year by Emily Gale, and loved the gentle, subtle inclusion. Grace Notes features the experiences of being at the start of the pandemic, in tight focus. There is the aptly titled, “‘Corona Chorus” that pops up between various movements of the story, to bring quotes from a range of voices via social media, on what is happening, how they are feeling, and dealing, with the unfolding pandemic. I was very connected to these voices, being taken back to these times of uncertainty and fear.
As Grace and Crux deal with lockdowns and worries about relatives and themselves, there are even more important issues in their lives, that relate to their art and their desire to make people see and hear them; their desire to change the world with their art. The story reminds us why art in all of its forms is like oxygen and water and forests and oceans, when it comes to the survival of human beings; without it we are nothing, without it we are lost.
A classic coming-of-age tale, centred around a delicate blossoming romance, that reminded me a little of Romeo and Juliet, or one of my favourite books from childhood, Across the Barricades, by Joan Lingard, Grace and Crux move slowly towards each other, navigating family rules, lockdown rules, rules of society, rules held within themselves.
They break barriers, run through abandoned streets, climb ladders, sneak into bars at night and onto old abandoned trams, stand beneath nursing home windows, and upon street corners, and revel in Melbourne’s colourful alleyways, defying all of these rules, defying danger and fear, to be who they truly are, to find love, to fly.
Karen writes with the heart of an artist and the use of the violin and its achingly beautiful notes, can be felt on the pages. If you have been to Hosier Lane, you will have a visceral experience during the street art scenes. It is easy to shift your head from Crux to Grace, Grace to Crux, without becoming lost, in fact, I was drawn across the pages like a violin bow. Relationships with family, friends and each other, are beautifully written, and you will be left wanting more of Karen’s work.
Highly recommended for ages 13+.