BOOK REVIEW: Trio by Sue Gee

Trio is set in 1930s Northumberland and follows a history teacher, Steven Coulter, in the years following the untimely death of his young wife. As grief takes a solid hold, Steven finds himself pulled into the world of his colleague, Frank Embleton, whose sister, Diana, performs in a trio of local musicians with George Liddell and Margot Heslop. Steven slowly starts to form relationships with the new people in his life and finds a way to move on from his grief. However, with war looming on the horizon, their hazy, romantic view of the world is soon shattered.

The wonderful thing about being a voracious reader is that you come across an extraordinary variety of novels; some difficult, some tricksy, some light and so on. Sometimes though, you just need the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket. Sue Gee's Trio is exactly that, a poignant look at a group of friends moving through time. There's a nice depth to it at all times, weaving its narrative through its context and exploring both the hazy happy periods and the slow violence of grief and loss.

There are several different layers operating at all times throughout Gee's novel as she traces the development of the relationships within. Various moments in the novel are punctuated by references to the build-up to the Second World War or the ongoing Spanish Civil War. They are short, sharp shocks to the country idyll that you become enveloped within. The various deaths that arrive throughout the narrative operate on a similar level, whether it's the long-awaited and dreaded expiration of Margaret, suffering from tuberculosis, or the suddenness of others elsewhere.

Time beats a rhythm throughout the novel, sometimes flitting ahead at a staccato pace, at others, slowing down to spend time with the characters at a specific moment in their life. It is a relentless progression though, no matter the pace, and a constant reminder that all things must come to an end at some point. It all comes to a wonderful head in the closing chapters of Trio, a conclusion which is at once both melancholic and hopeful, a testament to the endurance of human relationships and the hollow space that can sometimes be left behind.

Another crucial and successful aspect of Gee's narrative is the attention to detail she offers when it comes to the characters' lives. The broad strokes of the military movements form the background to intensely personal moments such as the focal points of Steven's grief; Margaret's coat, still on its hook after her death, forms an anchor throughout Steven's story, something he keeps returning to despite moving on elsewhere. There is also attention paid weird little synergies that life sometimes throws at you, like the similarity between Margaret and Margot's names. These details keep the novel operating on a rich yet personal level.

The elegance with which Gee orchestrates these elements is what makes Trio such a gentle read, both heartwarming and heart-wrenching in equal measure. The focus on those universal experiences of love and grief transcend its period setting to produce something deeply human.

Trio is available from Salt Publishing here.

- Becky

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