The Glass Harmonica, reviews

A wonderful tale from Dorothee E. Kocks and Rosa Mira Books, that takes its reader from Europe to America, from music to movies, from sin to sensuality. Our heroine in The Glass Harmonica is Chjara Valle: intelligent, feisty, sexy – a very fun heroine, in other words! We meet Chjara as a teenager on Corsica and within the first six pages she’s lost her virginity to the local lovely lad (rather awesome) which then sees her sold off to a French merchant as a servant (rather less awesome, though a nicely realistic jolt).

So, the beginning is extremely promising and fortunately the rest of The Glass Harmonica does not disappoint. Chjara ends up in Paris, where she meets Marguerite (a French noblewoman who is still mourning losing her husband and son to the guillotine) and then the two loves of her life: Henry, a son of Puritans and the glass harmonica.

Music, love and sex become entwined in The Glass Harmonica, as we move from France to New England. I loved all the strands that were embedded in this story, there’s so much happening that it was easy to become enthralled. In many ways the book is reminiscent of Louis de Bernieres, with strong female characters, the idea of the Old World and the New World clashing, and the wonderfully descriptive story-telling.

Some interesting ideas are examined, particularly by Chjara who throughout the novel questions why virtue must equal restraint and asceticism, and there’s more than one not-so-subtle reminder of the hypocrisy of many of the ‘virtuous’.

This is a great read. Kocks keeps an expert writerly hand on the drama in her tale, intensifying it and moderating it perfectly, so as a reader you cannot help but feel the tension and emotion. Bookie Monster The Book Depository


If Dorothee Kocks’ novel The Glass Harmonica were only about a singular theme — that of the intoxication of losing oneself in music — that would probably be enough to satisfy any reader and have them return for more.

But this novel, the debut offering from Rosa Mira Books, contrasts that luxurious pleasure with darker desires and baser pleasures. The manifest undercurrent of shame and the lies that spring from that shame charge the reader with dread and anticipation at their inevitable out.

We follow the life of a Corsican girl, Chjara Vallé, from the womb, through birth, childhood, her immersion in music, faith and love to her forced exportation as a servant to post-revolutionary France. It is here she encounters the glass harmonica of the title and along with it the naive, focusless American, Henry.

The ‘mystical’ instrument was purported to drive both musician and listener insane. Once blamed for the death of a child in the audience, it was considered ‘dangerous’ for a woman to play.

It would be easy to package this tale of Henry, Chjara and the glass harmonica as a love story, but that would be a gross over-simplification. The ill-fated relationship is portrayed in its deceits and desperations — making it all the more believable and compelling.

Rooted in historical context Kocks stitches together meticulous research of fact and fancy with her achingly human characters.

Told in her evocative language, the author describes in gut-clenching detail the rapture of pure musical enjoyment; her words allow us to smell and taste and hurt along with the protagonists.

The Glass Harmonica is rich fare for the senses and while sensual to the point of lustful at times, it never feels sensationalist. On the contrary — its corporeal passages are entirely necessary to affirm the headstrong individuality of Chjara and the desperate humanity of her Henry as husband, father and provider.

I was first tempted by this novel with a short reading from an early draft in Spain, 2005. And while it has no doubt evolved from that early form, Kocks has kept true to the fascinating premise and straight-up empathy that made me happy to wait for (and voracious in the consumption of) this most engaging piece of literature. Eion Flyn, Night Editor, Irish Sun

… a beautifully-written story of Revolutionary France, post-revolutionary America, and the invention of pornography as a commercial genre. The central character Chjara, a Corsican virtuoso of the glass harmonica, is vivid and engaging. I wasn’t always convinced by the actions and motivations of her American lover Henry, but that’s a minor flaw in this fine novel which was a pleasure to read on my newly-acquired Kindle. Tim Jones: Books in the Trees

…The Glass Harmonica is rich with historical texture. Brimming with research, it vividly recreates any number of subcultures, ranging from continental drawing-room entertainments to the feverish intensity of revivial meetings. As one might expect of a writer who has spent much of her life, and much of her work, exploring the concept of place, Kocks also evokes varied geographies — urban Paris and Philadelphia, rural upstate New York, coastal New England;  et. al. An afterword limns her sources and provides set of footnotes worth studying for their own sake.

Kocks also boldly trespasses over contemporary convention in realistic fiction, eschewing the spare, lean quality of modern prose in favor of lush, omniscient narration. ‘On the morning Chjara Valle quickened in her mother’s womb, the sun reached its red fingers over the Mediterranean Sea,’ the novel opens. The book is engorged with such biological/anthropomorphic motifs.

But at its core, The Glass Harmonica is a novel of ideas. Sometimes those ideas are suggested in deceptively simple language, as in this exchange with her mother that suggests the paradoxes built into the the very notion of an autonomous self:

‘My destiny is here,’ Chjara said.

‘Your destiny is not yours to decide.’

‘Who decides then?’

‘Don’t be impertinent.’

Other times, characters engage in explicitly philosophical discourse, discussing theology, politics, and other topics.

But for all its its intellectual sophistication, the argument of the novel — part of its hybrid quality is that one can speak of it having a thesis — rests on a simple idea: the pleasure principle, expressed most consistently in sexual terms. (The libertarian ethos of the book extends secondarily to economics as well.) Over and over again, her characters affirm it. ‘She wondered at this idea — we are God’s instruments — and she vowed to live by the principle that what would make us feel more alive was good,’ Chjara declares at one point. Henry, for his part, ‘understood that his father’s (Puritan) religion was not the only one in the world; Jefferson’s deists gave (him) the confidence that the world had been made to work well regardless of his breakfast.’ The lovers will be forced to question this conclusion repeatedly over the course of the novel, most seriously when it appears their choices have damaged their children. Faced with trauma, they look to themselves: when, in a desperate moment, Henry feels compelled to pray, it’s not to God but to Chjara. Later their son prays to himself. And yet for all their intimacy, Chjara and Henry also have the secrets, a challenge to their fidelity more vexing than any adultery. Jim Cullen for the History News Network

To live for love and joy seems so alien to many. The Glass Harmonica: A Sensualist’s Tale is a novel following Chjara Vallé, a driven young woman who through her life of a servant as she goes from Corsica to Paris to America. A riveting and unique read with plenty of twists and turns as a woman with a love for music dares to go against the law for it. The Glass Harmonica is a read very much worth considering for historical fiction collections, highly recommended. Midwest Book Review

Bawdy, geographically vast, heroic, and sensual indeed, Dorothee Kocks’s, The Glass Harmonica perfectly combines the novelist’s and the historian’s skills. It is an unforgettable saga. Sterling Watson, author of Fighting in the Shade

…a novel full of rich history, love and music. The strong storytelling moves the action quickly, and 400 pages later you find yourself breathless, heart pounding (literally, it was), at the end of a journey back in time and geography… Kocks writes… with all her senses electrified. Amie Tullius, arts writer, Catalyst Magazine

As it plumbs the erotic life of the nineteenth century, this debut novel is filled with moments of startling insight and deep wisdom. Like the luminous music her heroine calls forth from the glass harmonica, Dorothee Kocks’s language vibrates with surprise and enchantment. Teresa Jordan, author of Riding the White Horse Home and

In The Glass Harmonica, a sensualist’s tale, Kocks delivers prose to match the title. One voluptuously melodic sentence follows the next taking us from Corsica to Paris to America on a journey filled with passion and secrets. Jana Richman, author of The Last Cowgirl

As the subtitle of The Glass Harmonica suggests, protagonist Chjara Vallé follows her desires in music and life, oversteps society’s gender roles, is exiled by her teacher, a renegade priest, and grows up making pleasure a virtue — all while balancing service and freedom. Anne Holman, The King’s English bookshop