– by Caren J. Werlinger
What can I say about Caren J. Werlinger‘s latest book, “Invisible, as Music,” eh? Gosh, Werlinger can really squeeze your heart, pull your heartstrings, with her stories, can’t she? After reading “Bittersweet Garden” and “When The Stars Sang,” I knew Werlinger would give me yet another thought-provoking, heart-gripping, gut-wrenching story about the human condition – the wonders, fragility, strength, power, vulnerability of it – in her own unique voice, which, I must say, always carries a certain spiritual undertone. And, I was not wrong because “Invisible, as Music” was absolutely captivating from start to finish, with some memorable moments I’d not soon forget!
Firstly, the title. Not knowing its origin, I was immediately intrigued because…music. Anything about music always perks my curiosity. And to add the word “invisible” to it… I don’t know but it immediately gave me this feeling of mystique. Invisible, as music… It’s so lyrically poetic. ‘Nuff said.
This story, on the surface, when it comes to romance, was incredibly subversive, if I may say so myself. See, if you take it at face value, you could simply say that the romance was derived from the bog-standard age-gap trope that we’ve encountered in many lesfic stories. You could also say that it’s a BIG age-gap trope…because there was a 30-year gap between the two MCs, Henrietta (Hank) and Meryn (Ryn). Buuuut, not so fast! Now, if you delve deeper into the story, you’d find that age, let alone the gap in-between, is essentially, a state of mind, really. Well, that’s not only my interpretation of Werlinger’s intention in this story, but also my personal point of view. Besides the age factor, Werlingner upped the intricacy of the romance with another unique and dare I say, original, factor, to one of the MCs, Hank. And that sealed the deal for me as a reader who loves to delve and explore a different nature of relationships in lesbian romance. And oh, this story was set in the era of Reagan’s upcoming re-election – 1984-85? So, a historical romance.
Hank suffered from polio when she was a teenager that left her with restricted mobility, altered her activities of daily living, affected her lifestyle, her life, basically, having been literally made a prisoner of her own condition in the confines of her own home that she’d been living for the past 40 years since contracting the potentially deadly and crippling infectious disease. Only being able to move with crutches and braces, with a modified vehicle so she could at least drive herself to places, albeit confined to just a few nearby, at least Hank could feel some sort of independence. I just loved how Werlinger described Hank, from her appearance, to her movements with crutches and braces, to the surroundings of her home and situations she had to contend with. Hank’s expressions, verbal and non-verbal alike, on her own or when interacting with others, the sounds, the pacing, the heartbeat of her movements, laboured at times, her state of mind in her surroundings, be it at home or out in public, situations that she was thrown into, were viscerally felt when I read Werlinger’s words infused with emotions and nuances that breathed life into Hank’s character in the first phase of the story.
I absolutely loved Hank. From the start, I could feel her internal soul as Werlinger skilfully depicted her inner turmoil, inner struggles, emotional upheavals, her psyche, and most affectingly her quiet innocence (despite her age), with resonating effect. At every turn. Despite her condition, Hank maintained her love for painting, her art, which she always turned to since childhood, and more so after surviving the potentially deadly disease, as her therapeutic escapade, her solace. There was one thing that was deeply affecting about her, which was her lifelong yearning for the loss of contact from Una, her childhood best friend (and more, even though she never really understood what her feelings meant, just that she missed her best/closest mate deeply) which had devastated her all this while, thinking that she was forgotten. So, throughout 40 years, she was living with not just physical disability but also mental and emotional disability – for not being “normal” and having loss the one person she was the closest to who understood her completely.
Just when Hank was resigned to her current life, alone, lonely, depressed, rigid, with no change for the rest of her life, with hired help and live-in companions to keep her company and her life going, so to speak, entered Ryn, the newly graduated, newly hired English professor at the university. Their serendipitous first encounter was quite interesting but their 2nd one was, I must say, memorable, not to mention, hilarious! Read it and find out for yourself! I can almost guarantee that you’ll enjoy it! I did!
Speaking of Ryn, she was a delightful character to explore. An out lesbian, political, outspoken, a feminist, and very self-aware, full of confidence and life. Despite being very young, she was certainly an old soul, deeply introspective and mature beyond her years. I absolutely adored Ryn. From the start, when she and Hank met under a hilarious set of circumstances, I could sense their natural ease and chemistry developing. Hank’s innate introverted shyness played up against Ryn’s sunny, outgoing, extroverted persona was no less than simply marvellous to explore, thanks to Werlinger’s ever-captivating portrayal of their nuances.
Speaking of, I thoroughly appreciated Werlinger’s 3rd person narrative as I was able to delve deeply into both Hank and Ryn’s characters, from their own individual lives, their interactions with other people, to their respective mindsets, their inner psyche, regarding their growing affection and connection to each other, from an employer-employee arrangement to becoming friends that slowly and gradually turned into something more. Also, due to the intricate circumstances both Hank and Ryn had to contend with when they both embarked on their romantic journey, it was especially a welcome undertaking that Werlinger provided equal screen time (so to speak!) in unveiling a dual POV so I could be equally invested in both Hank and Ryn’s side of the story as their journey progressed into deeper waters in the sea of love.
I must say, this love story was unlike any other that I’ve read. First off, the age-gap. 30 years. On the surface, it may seem like a huge difference but to me, age is just a number, really. It’s always about the soul, I believe. It’s about the person’s state of mind and life experience. And that’s exactly how Hank and Ryn were. Despite Hank being the older one, she had this innate innocence in her, especially when she’d spent most of her life sheltered and practically locked away from “normal” life experience. In fact, you could say that her life experience “ended” after contracting polio and being home-bound since, not to mention, losing contact with her best and closest friend all throughout the years. Whereas, Ryn, despite being much younger, exuded maturity in how she viewed the world, life, emotional feelings and relationships. And thanks to Werlinger’s deeply affecting portrayal and depiction of Hank and Ryn’s characteristics and personalities that brought this whole age-vs-innocence-vs-mindset-vs-maturity scenario to life. It was realistic, thought-provoking, spiritual and deeply resonating.
And just when you thought that the big age difference was the crux of their romance, there was Hank’s health to be contended with, too! This was where Werlinger truly shone in epitomising someone whose whole life was defined by her health condition and disability. Hank’s character and everything that described her as a person were so well-researched, well-crafted, with Werlinger’s skilfully written, highly affecting account of Hank’s experiences, which were grounded in realism and authenticity. There was a deeply gripping scene involving Hank’s physical health which was so brilliantly described that I felt it viscerally, the harsh reality and grave danger of Hank’s condition. As I read this scene, I couldn’t help but realise that as a relatively healthful person, I’d more often than not taken for granted about the issues of health and how, at times, something as minor and inconsequential as contracting a bog-standard cold to me, could actually be deadly to another less healthful person. Werlinger truly embodied this particular aspect with an incredibly captivating, gut-wrenching scene that was filled with overwhelming distress, fear, anxiety and malaise, depicted with penetrative effect, imo. Needless to say, it resonated deeply.
Another characteristic of this incredibly original and unconventional love story worth mentioning is how Hank and Ryn manoeuvred their path forward as a romantic couple when they eventually submitted to their undeniable love and devotion for each other. The push-pull, mostly from Hank’s part (obviously!), Ryn’s emotional and spiritual resolve, how they came to terms with the type of romantic relationship they were getting into especially from Ryn’s perspective, not to forget, the support (and push-backs) from friends and family, only added to the realistic nature of Hank and Ryn’s journey. Speaking of friends and family, I loved all the secondary characters, particularly Maxine, Sandy and Franny as these three were instrumental in the continued development and progress of Hank and Ryn’s growing relationship beyond platonic. That said, I also enjoyed Gordon’s character, Hank’s doctor, who was an example of how a medical professional should be – caring, sympathetic and helpful. Plus, another characteristic of his I was delighted to discover later in the book that made me like him even more! I don’t know about you but reading Werlinger’s books always give me a sense of peace and spirituality. At least after 3 books (including this one), I sense, in her storytelling, this consistent quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things, which, imo, adds depth and breadth to the overall life force of the story. But that’s just my own interpretation, mind!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another aspect of Werlinger’s story in this book, which I thought was befitting of the mid-80s, Reagan era. The subversive injection of the social connotations that were rife (which is STILL happening today, ffs!) during that time – misogyny, racism, bigotry, Reaganism politics, class, and sexual harrassment. I loved how Werlinger weaved these contentious issues into Hank and Ryn’s overall journey of love, truth, reconciliation, self-discovery, and acceptance because they were so covertly structured they were overt, so to speak! Subtlety is key in the world of subversive storytelling, imo! Simply stupendous to explore and discover, not to mention, invest in!
Just when I thought there was nothing else Werlinger could’ve done to make this story more brilliantly crafted than it already was, she squeezed in another gem – my favourite, memorable quote in this book. A poem with stirring, moving, visceral words and their implications that evoked all emotions from within my soul…
– Appropos of the true essence of this uniquely designed, unorthodox love shared between two souls in search of love and intimacy that transcended the physical, ignited the emotions and the spiritual. Bloody brilliant!
As many an epilogue went, this was prolly one of the most memorable ones I’d read, thusfar! Whilst I was perfectly happy with how the story ended right before the epilogue, I was also appreciative of Werlinger’s decision to add an epilogue with its content because it really solidified the depth of the love, commitment and devotion that Ryn always had for Hank. It was bittersweet but truly divine. Spiritually cleansing.
This book is a resounding MUST-READ!!! I loved everything about it. Werlinger has once again tugged at my heartstrings with another penetratingly indelible story, superbly written and crafted, that hooked me in from start to finish! “Invisible, as Music” is one of the most original, uniquely crafted, unconventional love stories in lesfic that I will be thinking about for a while. Deeply contemplative and thought-provoking, spiritually enriching, soul-stirring, emotionally resonating whilst also wrapped in an incredibly affirmative assertion that love takes on many shapes or forms that surpasses all kinds of traditional (and archaic!) so-called “norms” about how two people should fall in love and live it. Authenticity should be strived. Love is love.
READ IT. FEEL IT.
Bloody well done, Ms. Werlinger!
**I was given, with much thanks and appreciation, an ARC of this book, by the author, in return for an honest review. Cheers, Ms. Werlinger!
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