Book review: Ellie and the Harp Maker by Hazel Prior

(cover image courtesy Penguin Australia)

In a perfect, idealised world, every love story would have a happy ending, the kind that consumes your heart, sweeps you of your feet and convinces you in the very depths of your being that you are valued, loved and belong.

But life, lovely though it is at times, is not always predisposed to happy endings, and to be honest, often seems to connive to thwart them taking place at all, and we are left with endings that are adequate, tolerable, okay.

Or if you’re Ellie the Exmoor Housewife, the titular protagonist of Hazel Prior’s Ellie and the Harp Maker – her nickname will be explained later – a constant exercise in justification of the unjustifiable.

For Ellie, a sweetly poetic woman who finds a calming sense of peace in being alone in nature and transcendant joy in music, is in a marriage to the mercurial Clive, a union which to anyone on the outside looking in appears to be a textbook exercise in marital bliss.

It isn’t, of course, with Clive engaged in what is now termed gaslighting , an abhorrent way of relating to another person which involves you manipulating another person, usually your spouse, into doing what you want them to by convincing them over the time that they are deficient in every way possible.

“He smiles approval. The sunlight is touching the curve of his cheek and, as he stretches high to reach the fruit on the upper branches, I register again his extraordinarily handsome features. If the universe had planned things differently … If I had been single … If he had been the sort of person who looked at me the way I was now looking at him …” (P. 31)

It’s a sanity-breaking technique that is so effective that people who were previously well-adjusted, emotionally-sound and possessed of a strong sense of self, can find themselves buying into lie after lie, convinced they are they in some perfect relationship when quite the opposite is true.

Clive makes all the right noises – “I love you honey-pun”, “Let’s do what you want” but the truth is, every road leads back to the fulfilment of the gaslighter’s grossly selfish ends and the further degradation of their supposed loved one’s sense of self.

Just how insidious this diabolical process is is highlighted when Ellie meets harp maker Dan one day out on of her walks, and immediately hits it off with the handsome man who lives and work alone in a barn among the evocative treescape of Exmoor.

Given a harp impulsively by her new insta-friend, Ellie is thrilled that her poetic heart, one that longs for something more than an isolated life as a housewife – Clive has convinced Ellie, in typical gaslighting fashion, that she has no need of a job, outside interests a network of close friends (her sole friend is the equally lonely Christina) – has accidentally found another way to express itself.

But her early dreams of pursuing a musical path which begin to bud and grow on the drive are quickly and brutally rend asunder by Clive who ridicules the idea that she could play the harp, casts doubt on Dan’s (pure) motives and demands she takes the harp back.

Ellie complies because Clive loves her and knows best – that’s what she tells herself over and over, the need to do so driven by a childhood spent under a self-esteem sabotaging mother for whom nothing was ever good enough – but when she goes back to Dan, he convinces her to come over and play the harp, to see where it takes her.

Hazel Prior (image courtesy official Hazer Prior Twitter account)

It’s a beguiling idea but Ellie is stricken with guilt – learning to play the harp (and the growing friendship that entails with the well-meaning Dan who, it is obvious, is on the autism spectrum) means hiding something from Clive, and those kinds of secrets never lead anywhere good when you’re living with a man prone who can switch from loving and attentive to angrily destructive in a nanosecond.

Nevertheless, she decides to take up Dan’s offer, something deep within her impelling her to step beyond the strict environs of her tightly-circumscribed life.

Ellie’s fateful decision sets in train a wholly lovely story of reinvention, friendship, new opportunities and love that is possessed of sometime shocking emotional muscularity that makes it clear that this is no consequence-free fairytale.

Picking up the book and reading the back cover blurb, you might be tempted to think it’s another quirky story of a lost soul finding meaning and purpose in wholly unexpected circumstances.

And while that is true, and delightfully so in one sense, it also does this remarkable book a small disservice since it goes so much further than simply being quirky and delightful.

“Next I though about Ellie’s face. The way her hair curls around it in different ways on different days. The gentle slope of her nose. Her lips, and how they curve sometimes up and sometimes down and sometimes she opens them and words come out. The words have a sing-song sound, a bit of lilt, with an inflection like questions even when they are not questions. When Ellie speaks, all of her face is animated: her cheekbones, her dimples, the flesh of her forehead, the line of her jaw, the arch of her eyebrows. Her eyes.” (P. 133)

It illuminates, in a way that goes to the heart of the dysfunctionality of some relationships, and the way the stories we are told and tell ourselves can profoundly affect us for the worse, how far you can fall from what you want for your life and how much it can mean when a chance to rescue things comes into your orbit.

While you ache for Ellie and the hell she is living in which she has, for what remains of her sense of sanity, dressed up as some sort of Cupidian heaven, you are also delighted when she and Dan grow closer.

We are made privy to what both poetic Ellie and matter-of-fact Dan, whose life is immeasurably changed by the Exmoor Housewife’s low-key revolutionary decision to learn to play the harp, are thinking by way of first person alternating chapters which expose in ways heartfelt, sweet and shocking, what each person is thinking.

It gives a beautiful, fully-rounded perspective to the narrative (and the characters who are a joy) that is so immersive that you quickly find yourself rooting for the lives of Dan (who initially feels he doesn’t “have the right ingredients” for a relationship) and Ellie to defy the odds and go somewhere new and wonderful.

Hazel Prior deftly manages to combine the quirky and sweet with the confronting and the real, gifting us with a book in Ellie and the Harp Maker which is diversionary, escapist and real life defying (and nothing like you expect) but which is also deeply and inalienably real world authentic, an admission that while happy endings are possible, and necessary, that getting to them is sometimes far more challenging than we may have been led to believe, and as a result, all the sweeter when they finally become yours.

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