Ellie and the Harpmaker is a Charming Debut

Ellie and the Harpmaker (2019)
By Hazel Prior
Berkley/Penguin, 336 pages.

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a quirky little novel whose charm grows the deeper you get into it. Set in Exmoor, which lies near Bristol in the southwest of England, it centers on two loners whose relationship is seldom what you’d imagine. Although Hazel Prior’s story is nothing like that of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, there are similarities in tone and the overall unusualness of the two tales.

Dan Hollis is the titular harpmaker. Although Prior never uses the term autism, we suspect he’s on the spectrum. In his isolated barn Dan fashions gorgeous instruments; a small sign proclaiming him the “Exmoor Harpmaker” is the only hint of a shop with nearly three dozen hand-carved harps, each fashioned from wood Dan carefully chooses and adorned with a pebble he plucks from a brook. Dan leaves sales to his sister Jo, as he has no head for business or much of anything else that’s practical. He makes only Celtic harps, which he can tune but cannot play because he has done so since childhood. Dan’s the kind of guy who counts ants and stars, notices the color of socks, brews coffee for its smell but doesn’t drink it, and serves sandwiches to his rare visitors, which he cuts into precise triangles. (It is a major effort to adjust to cutting them into rectangles.)

Overall, Dan is far more at home in the woods and upon the moors than in social situations. Metaphors and irony stump him, and he answers all questions literally and without filters. He has just one friend, Thomas, his postal carrier, though he does claim to have a girlfriend he calls Roe Deer–though her name is actually Rhoda Rothbury, a harper*–whom he knows lives precisely 23.1 miles away. She’s been his girlfriend for eight years, though is doesn’t dawn on Dan that they’ve not been intimate or on a date for six years and that she disappeared for a year.

One day, Ellie Jacobs sees his small sign and impulsively visits Dan’s shop. Thus begins their connection. Dan dubs her “the Exmoor Housewife,” and impulsively gifts her a harp that she cannot play. Ellie is married to Clive, who purports to adore her, though theirs is a jealous, manipulative relationship–so much so he browbeats her into returning the harp. In turn, Ellie tries to hide the fact that she is taking lessons from Roe/Rhoda, that she regularly visits Dan, and that he keeps her harp in his shop.

This sets up a series of situations, some hysterical, some fraught with tension, and some touchingly poignant. There’s even a character named Phineas, who is a pheasant! This is a book about what happens when a guileless innocent is drawn into situations that call for tactful disingenuousness–especially when encountering another as rigid as he, but decidedly not so innocent. It is also one in which individuals who lack confidence and self-esteem find music and affinities that make the soul soar.

If I might return to the unusualness theme, little that I’ve said truly captures this book’s essence. Ms. Prior knows something about the impact of music; she too is a harper. Hans Christian Anderson remarked, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Ms. Prior’s characters aren’t exactly wordless, but both actual music and what we might call the music of the heart help those who struggle to articulate convey their inner natures and build connections.

I will not pretend that Ellie and the Harpmaker is destined to become a literary classic. In parts it is overly sentimental and it occasionally skirts the border of cliché. It is nonetheless a sweet debut that sounds triumphant notes for characters who find joy in simple things and rediscover innocence. To circle back to my opening, it is a novel whose major virtue is its charm.   

Rob Weir

* Although many people use the term “harpist,” years ago acclaimed Scottish musician Alison Kinnaird advised me that the correct term is “harper.” If anyone knows, it is she!


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