“Jane was no longer aware of what her hands were doing, but somehow they kept playing. The song filled the room like water, suspending them, weightless, as they watched each other. Jane knew the moment the music ended, gravity would return.” — Emma Brodie, Songs in Ursa Major
When Jane Quinn steps on the stage at the Bayleen Island Folk Fest to fill in for the missing, yet clamored music sensation Jessie Reid, she has no idea that her whole life is about to change. From here on, Emma Brodie’s Songs in Ursa Major takes off, taking us along on a trip back through time, beginning in 1969 to the golden era of folk music. Janie Q and her band the Breakers have been around for a while, playing gigs around the island, but it was on that night, as Janie Q pulled off the incredible feat of entertaining an angry crowd disappointed by their idol, that Willy Lambert, a representative for Pegasus Records, notices the band and begins to pursue them.
At the same time, Jessie Reid’s disappearance is revealed – he was in a motorcycle accident the night he was supposed to perform. Rehabbing at the center where Jane and her aunt work, Jane and Jessie find common ground in their passion for music, this passion giving way for a meeting of their minds as they both begin to fall deeply for each other.
Working on the record does not go well for the Breakers, as their head producer, Vincent Ray, is not impressed by Jane — a girl — leading the band. To help them out, Jessie suggests they go on tour together, opening for him and his band. It’s on this tour that the band gets some traction and Jessie and Jane’s relationship grows. While the producers are pushing Jane to sell her relationship with Jessie, Jane refuses to let anyone outside of her inner circle know about it. She’s fixated on selling her album organically, believing full-heartedly that her talent is enough to sell records, not wanting to base her career on the sensationalism of celebrity gossip.
However, soon Jane discovers Jessie’s dark secret, and holding true to her own moral compass, she must end the relationship. When the tour is over, her band disperses, with some members moving away to spend time with their family and others moving on to other projects. Jane goes back home to her aunt and grandmother, to work at the local hairdresser, her heart broken not just from her split from Jessie but also from her split from the Breakers. To make matters worse, Jessie is on the cover of almost every magazine with Morgan Vidal, a young female folk singer who’s willing to sell her private life in order to make it in the business.
Jane then enters her darkest period. But in the throes of this darkness, her greatest work is born: the album Songs in Ursa Major.
It’s here that Brodie’s narrative shines its brightest. Her descriptions of the songs in Ursa Major are the epitome of what writing has been trying to do since the beginning of time: to capture the essence of something which would otherwise remain indescribable in words.
Her mastery of language through prose is evident when it comes time to describe the sound and emotions evoked by the music these fictional artists are composing in the story. We’re never left with a vague idea, nor does she resort to cheap/cop-out allegories to music we already know. Brodie delves in as deep as possible and does the work. These are unique works of music that exist within the realm of literature, and though we cannot experience them with our sense of hearing, Brodie ensures that we know exactly what we would be listening to.
This many-layered narrative is a work of art within itself, as Brodie maneuvers her way, not just around describing the music, but simultaneously creating a believable early-70s folk scene. She also concocts characters that stand all on their own as singular entities while braiding the thread of a romantic story arc that serves as the catalyst for many of the characters’ choices. The cherry on top is that she also gives us a strong female lead who, through sheer determination, forges her own way into the music industry at a time when women were less welcomed, on her own terms.
Brodie is a writer of the highest caliber. Her debut novel, Songs in Ursa Major, will leave you nostalgic for a time in which things seemed simpler and for the kind of music that moves something inside you that you didn’t know lived there before.