Romola sang soprano, but perhaps an opera singer’s life after she has retired is, by definition, incidental music.

Or, perhaps the fragments of memory that swell and break for a 70-something woman living with dementia are incidental music.

Or, the lost love she half-recalls? Maybe that is incidental.

Inanna Publications, 2012

Inanna Publications, 2012

The background music for Petra’s storyline might be the hum and roar of the subway (many Toronto stations feature separately, from Kipling to Downsview to Keele, even some secondary exits like Delaware Street’s at Ossington Station).

Perhaps the incessant ring of the telephone in the work she does, first as a volunteer and then as a poorly-paid and over-worked assistant, for a local MP.

Or, maybe the hiss of paper shuffling in the stacks of applications required to pave the way to citizenship (a trail of applications stretching back to 1999 in Serbia-Montenegro) is incidental music.

Martha works in heritage, so perhaps it is the talk of renovations that provides the background music for her storyline.

Perhaps the din of intellectual conversation at an evening party, when she and her husband entertain.

Or, maybe it’s the echo of her love affairs with women that sets the mood in her narrative.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Lydia Perović’s novel is the seemingly countless ways for a reader to find satisfaction in Incidental Music. 

The narrative is as layered as the cover image, which simultaneously suggests a performance intimate and private, artistic and public.

Each of the three women — Romola, Petra and Martha — settles substantially into the narrative, each afforded a long chapter to allow readers to get acquainted with her.

Unlike some similiarly structured novels, there is no confusion about the narrators’ identities; they are distinct, equals parts credible and memorable. Those readers who enjoy having characters’ work identities explored and detailed will find the characterization of these women particularly satisfying.

Teaching at a community college? Artist? City planning and heritage worker? Political activist? These women collectively inhabit a variety of levels of privilege and struggle, confinement and refinement, ability and frustration.

Their social and political experiences, their intellectual and emotional interests, their visceral and haunting desires: each of these might be incidental for one reader and the overture for another.

The setting is Toronto-soaked. Residents will be tempted to follow the characters’ routes (either on TTC or a bicycle); those familiar with Shawn Micallef’s Stroll might envision the map that could accompany this novel (designed by Marlena Zuber).

Some specific destinations stand out (there are actually street numbers for some of the buildings in the narrative) including Petra’s apartment on the treeless stretch of Ossington, Dovercourt Park, the Gladstone branch of the Toronto library, the Saint James Town highrise, and Koreatown (complete with those delicious little walnut donuts drools slightly).

But one element of the geography that is also note-worthy is the preponderance of intersections in the narrative. Eglinton and DonMills, College and Bathurst, and Markham and Bloor: just as the characters in this book turn corners and head in new directions, the reader can choose to tread certain paths through the story more solidly than others and take turns to experience something else instead.

Perhaps you enjoy the kind of intellectual conversations in which people say “quote unquote” like other people say “y’know”. There is room for that reader.

(In the Acknowledgements, the author refers to Katherine Fierlbeck’s Political Thought in Canada: An Intellectual History. This book “inspired many of the arguments and disagreements heard at Martha’s dinner party in Chapter 2”, Martha’s introductory chapter.)

Perhaps you are drawn to Romola’s experience of the Sektor 7 group in Hungary in the 1950s, comprised of artists who believed that socialism was possible and would allow unprecedented creative freedoms. That reader will find a place in Incidental Music, too.

(“I salute any attempt to create the playlist to accompany Romola’s chapters.” Individual librettos are detailed; the curious novice or the active aficionado can explore and/or indulge.)

Perhaps architecture intrigues you. (The author recommends Tom Cruickshank’s Old Toronto Houses and various Heritage Walks.) That reader is welcome.

Perhaps a passionate love affair pulls you in. That reader, too, will be engaged. (“When I invented Romola and her circle, I was sure I was inventing Queer history under Communism and placing lesbian desire in fiction behind the Iron Curtain absolutely ex nihilo.” But, no. There are sources for that, too.)

But just as each of the characters could be the star (and the others incidental to her musical score), each of the novel’s themes shares the narrative stage (and the reader can choose to focus on one and relegate the others to the background as incidental).

[Perhaps you are simply reading off a checklist of the finalists for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award; if so, it’s not incidental that Lydia Perović’s novel has been nominated for Debut Fiction.]

What saves Incidental Music from feeling fragmentary is the author’s apparent curiosity for what motivates her characters (what motivates her readers, what motivates writers) in combination with the intersections between them in the narrative. At one point in the novel, Petra works as a canvasser and revels in the opportunity to actually enter so many different people’s homes; it’s easy to see that a similar spirit motivates Lydia Perović (entering the minds of so many characters and settings) and that aspect of her narrative voice contributes a coherency and consistency for readers throughout the multi-faceted novel.

Like Toronto, a sprawling city comprised of neighbourhoods, Incidental Music is filled with possibilities and an abundance of enthusiasm and passion. Perhaps all the rest is incidental.

Is this on your reading list? Or, are you adding it now?