Prairie Books NOW Review & Interview - A Large Harmonium

Striking a chord
Reviewed by: Bev Sandell Greenberg

When you can't find a book to read, why not write one?

"It seemed like every new book I was told I should read was about a dysfunctional family, or abuse, or murdered kids narrating their own story, and I thought to myself, I can't keep reading this stuff," says Sue Sorensen. "I wanted a novel that's basically happy. So I decided to write it myself."

Set in Winnipeg, Sorensen's novel, A Large Harmonium, centres around Janey Erlicksen, a 42-year-old English professor in an unnamed university. She is happily married to Hector, a music professor at the same university, and they have a three-year-old son, Max.

At the outset, Hector's friend Jam, a single musician, arrives for an extended stay and things begin to spiral out of control. Max starts throwing tantrums, Janey is under pressure to find a research topic, and a department member temporarily moves in with them. Soon after, Hector's duelling parents visit. Then one of her students is caught plagiarizing and the lascivious Jam has a romantic crisis with a colleague. Eventually, the stress catches up with Janey, forcing her to make some important changes in her life. 

Sorensen, a professor herself, likens the novel's style to "a kind of affectionate realism." She wanted to write about what family and academic life is like for her.

"I had to give that life a literary shape and polish it up and exaggerate when necessary."

Admittedly, Sorensen doesn't ahve a particular thesis about women, marriage, and motherhood that she wanted to impress upon readers. However, she definitely wanted to keep all these things in play and in the foreground.

"For my protagonist Janey and for me, all these elements are important," she says. "I wanted to get it all in there, and then see what she would do with the whole splendid mess."

The novel contains several musical elements, such as the harmonium mentioned in teh title.

"As a musical instrument, it's rather mysterious to me - there's a space in this novel that tries to express the notion that domestic and romantic life are also mysterious; we don't really know why they work or don't."

Throughout the novel, Janey's quirky, self-deprecating first-person narrative adds an entertaining dollop of humour.

"I wasn't sure it was a funny book. The voice came naturally to me. But there is no doubt that, particularly with the frustrations of raising small children, if you can't see the humour, you'll go mad."

The novel also pokes fun at professors and academic life. Among the topics skewered are university conferences, retreats, departmental politics, and the subject matter of reasearch topics. 

What Sorensen most wants readers to gain from her book is a sense of optimism.

"I really do hope that readers notice the marriage of Janey and Hector and appreciate it. There are not nearly enough good mariages in fiction, and I wanted to remedy that."

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