Reminiscent of the spare, lyrical voice of Isak Dinesen ("I had a farm in Africa . . ."), Singing Magic is the painfully frank while poignant memoir of a girl raised in the farmlands of Ontario and French Canada in the 1940s and 1950s, who then moved to South Africa in the late 1960s and witnessed the tumultuous dismantling of apartheid. Throughout are rich descriptions of people and places in rural Canada and remote regions in South Africa. ("'You'll eat dust,' my friend predicted. . . . She knew I hadn't the slightest idea of what lay ahead.")
The child with the beautiful voice finally found the lyrics to the wild, gypsy music that possessed her, in the strong, pitch-perfect lines of this strangely compelling book.
It’s warm here in front of the fireplace. Fire’s burning yellow and orange. More logs are stacked beside the fireplace. We’re sitting quietly, my father in his big chair, Bible on his lap. It’s closed now. After dinner there’s always Bible Reading and prayer. Family Altar, he calls it. Mommy is in her chair across from him, my little brothers sitting on the thick reddish rug between them. I’m six and feeling big on my own little wooden chair. Nobody’s talking. We’re listening to the fire. It’s hissing. Logs are cracking and spitting. I’m staring deep into the flames. I see pictures in the yellow fire: goblins dancing in the forest, elves, fairies with bright wings like butterflies but long and thin. When the fire burns low and orange and the logs are turning into grey chunks of ashes, I see knights in shining armour riding towards a castle on a hill in the setting sun.
“Don’t be so intense.”
My father’s voice, each word slow and sharp, like a slap. I look up. He’s staring at me in a way I haven’t seen before. His eyes are narrow, his thin lips tight with corners turning down. Suddenly I’m cold. I try to make myself smaller. Does he hate me? Why? I’m only thinking. I don’t say anything. He doesn’t like my thoughts then. He can read them on my face, I guess.
Mommy doesn’t say anything. Does she think I’m too intense? What’s the matter with that anyway? Is there something wrong with me?
I’ll have to hide my face from people when I think and dream.
Standing outside my mother’s bedroom door, I hear music. I open the door. Sunlight fills the room. The radio is playing music that wouldn’t be heard if my father were around. My mother’s face is shining. That music enters into me. She sees my face.
“Orchestra,” she says.
Singing and violins! Then a voice like violins soars over the orchestra. I stop breathing. That voice rising, falling, pulls me with it. Something in me opens up and bursts.
When the singing ends, I can breathe again.
“What kind of music is that?”
“What do you call a person who sings that?”
“An opera singer.”
“When I grow up I’m going to be an opera singer.”
The aria I’d been listening to was probably Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte.” Tosca, a diva in the story, was singing of her vision to live for her art. She ends the aria by exclaiming: that her dreams should end “Cosi — Like this!”
I was a singer, with dreams like hers.
Wanting to sing the arias, I got to live the libretto of an opera.
A singing stream runs through my years. When it encountered obstacles, it went underground, transposing into poetry and stories.