The Variations

Patrick Langley

French paperback with flaps, 464 pages
Published 7 September 2023

Read preview

Selda Heddle, a famously reclusive composer, is found dead in a snowy field near her Cornish home. She was educated at Agnes’s Hospice for Acoustically Gifted Children, which for centuries has offered its young wards a grounding in the gift – an inherited ability to tune into the voices and sounds of the past. When she dies, Selda’s gift passes down to her grandson Wolf, who must make sense of her legacy, and learn to live with the newly unleashed voices in his head. Ambitious and exhilarating, The Variations is a novel of startling originality about music and the difficulty – or impossibility – of living with the past.

‘Ecstasy is a word I’d happily associate with Patrick Langley’s lyrical and looping novel The Variations, a work with a similarly thrilling Nabokovian intrigue in the relationship between patterning, form and meaning…. The novel’s epigraph – “Variation is among the oldest and most basic devices in music. It originates in an inherent tendency to modify identical recurrence” – is a quote from the American composer Leon Stein, and almost laughably banal when held up against Langley’s humming prose. But its message is clear: it is Nabokov’s magic carpet, that age-old human impulse that – like music – wants to modify, edit, exceed, transcend itself. With The Variations, Langley appears to be weaving a carpet of his own.’
Matthew Janney, Guardian

‘For all The Variations’ unusual elements, Langley handles traditional storytelling modes expertly. He can nail a character in a few lines…. He can do action. And he has a knack for ending chapters with the expertise of a theatrical director ramping up the tension and then — curtain! — dropping into silence. The Variations, in other words, is a book whose oddness stretches the reader without estranging us. It asks more questions than it answers, but provides plenty of delight to compensate. It’s a novel where, as Selda reflects, “something about the world is revealed, though she can’t say what it is”.’
John Self, Financial Times

‘Langley’s grandly ambitious second novel … provides a vastly extended sense of family that stretches down the centuries into deep history…. Agnes’s Hospice for Acoustically Gifted Children [is] a creation that can be placed in a line of weird invented institutions in which gifted adepts are gathered: see also Thomas Pynchon’s White Visitation in Gravity’s Rainbow, or David Foster Wallace’s Peoria REC in The Pale King…. [A] valiant attempt to find a narrative form both to reflect and transcend our remorselessly self-centred culture…. The Variations extends our sense of individuality.’
Paul Quinn, Times Literary Supplement

The Variations is a wonderfully mysterious novel suffused with a Lynchian eeriness. I was totally under Langley’s spell and under the thrall of the eerie rhythms governing The Variations. Simply unforgettable.’
— Brandon Taylor, author of The Late Americans

‘If Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black were written by John Banville channelling M. John Harrison, the result would look something like this. And yet Langley has made something new and unexpected about how the present is, necessarily and always, an echo corridor of the past. Beautifully written, powered by a wonderfully intelligent conceptual dynamo, and deftly sprung with surprises, The Variations is an utterly original book about haunting. It is strange, resonant, and, yes, haunting.’
— Neel Mukherjee, author of The Lives of Others

The Variations is a passionate meditation on how past and present meet and annihilate one another in the flare of individual human experience. Music is presented as a kind of weather, blustery and changeable, unlimited by its own time. It takes you up, puts you down, whirls you away. Langley’s prose, lyrical and accurate, enlivens and illuminates. A tremendous, seriously ambitious novel.’
— M. John Harrison, author of Wish I Was Here

‘A novel humming with deep emotional truths and pitch-perfect execution. I loved it.’
— Steven Hall, author of Maxwell’s Demon

‘I thought The Variations was remarkable. I loved its hallucinatory vision of music as both gift and affliction, as a sort of crystallised form of human history. A book of strange and revelatory genius’
— Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

‘A skilfully told story about inheritance and inspiration, music and time. Langley has a fine eye for detail and scene-making, and The Variations is full of startling observations and images.’
— Martin MacInnes, author of In Ascension

‘[B]rainy, sensitive … the book is by turns funny, elegiac and crude…. The Variations is a curious but vibrant celebration of the unruliness of music.’
Mark Athitakis, Washington Post

‘[The] lack of focus … can also be its strength: discursive detours into music theory (John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg and Felix Mendelssohn); politics as seen through musical dynamics (Fascism is “all pattern, arbitrary and inflexible… an intolerance of tension”); or the “variations” of heredity (“some variable is always unpredictable, changing, mutating”) trigger Langley’s most effective and explorative prose.’
Alexander Leissle, Art Review

‘Langley uses the language of music, and of movement, to wrap around something much more propulsive: the difficulty – or impossibility – of living with the past (the past being things that are now gone), of grieving it, or anticipating it.’
Bryson Edward Howe, The Big Ship

Praise for Arkady

‘A gorgeous novel.… A livid and visionary brotherly love story set among our ruins. I loved it.’
— Max Porter, author of Shy

‘I haven’t been able to stop thinking about [Arkady] – such a tender, hopeful tale of brotherhood and belonging, set against vividly imagined urban topographies. I haven’t read anything like it in ages.’
— Sophie Mackintosh, author of The Water Cure 

Patrick Langley’s first novel, Arkady, was longlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Deborah Rogers Writers Prize. The Variations is his second novel.