Music first came into the life of Lavinia Greenlaw in the form of family noise: her mother's serene singing voice, the clatter made by herself and her three rambunctious siblings. Also, as an accompaniment to motion: Her father waltzed her on his feet, an uncle spun her in the air "like a teacloth full of wet lettuce." In "The Importance of Music to Girls," a collection of 56 compact essaylets that make up a memoir, Greenlaw describes growing up in a middle-class north London household, the child of broad-minded doctors. "I liked our noise yet came to find the volume of life too high," she writes, "and as I couldn't turn it down, turned myself down instead." She became "nervous, furious, and barely aware of myself."
Greenlaw narrates the story of her early life using music as a through-line, as the handle to the bundle. Coming of age in the late 1970s and early '80s, she listened to rock, punk and new wave, and it's not difficult to see why British critics reached for Nick Hornby as a comparison upon the book's U.K. release. But Greenlaw shies away from feel-good territory; she vividly calls up the awkwardness and rage of childhood and adolescence, the difficulty of mastering the growing body and the forces that would work to control it, the chaos of hurt feelings, the arbitrary cruelty of children's social systems. Music isn't always about pleasure and release. It can be exclusionary, as in the circle games of the playground, or oppressively formal: The English country-dance lessons she is made to take (in the youth-culture enclave of Camden Town, of all places) are like "gambling for matchsticks rather than money." "I wanted other music," she writes.
That other music was rock. While classical music taught her "how notes took shape and how little their shape had to do with dots on a stave" and piano lessons were a way to absorb a surfeit of physical energy, Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" portended adult emotions like regret and desire, "a rehearsal of feeling." Studying the folkways of London teenagers, dressed in their "vegetal" colors -- "they looked damp" -- and watching the "Top of the Pops" TV show were ways to map out the adolescence before her. Donny Osmond was a brief, grudging introduction to the world of boys and crushes.
Greenlaw's family moved to a rural Essex town when she was 10 years old -- the age when being a girl takes on new implications. "I didn't work," she writes. She briefly tries to be a "painted, squawking" disco girl, but she's too messy and raw to fit into such packaging. Instead she embraces punk's promises of liberation and rebellion, its electric, synthetic colors. She cuts and dyes her hair and, in a harrowing passage, cuts a friend's hair, with disastrous results -- the girl is mocked by her father and attempts suicide. But punk empowers the teenage Greenlaw. "[N]ow I had something to belong to, for which my isolation and oddity were credentials," she writes. Still, music, as Greenlaw discovers, is a boys' club. Most girls like to sing and dance along to songs, she finds, but don't take music seriously; boys listen to records for hours, discussing and evaluating. As she hangs around boys' bedrooms, she learns to listen to music intently, to appreciate vastly different genres. This doesn't make the boundaries of gender any more breachable: "I talked to boys about music and they tried to take off my clothes."
For one passage, Greenlaw includes margin notes excerpted from her disappointed school reports: "Lavinia . . . works in a very personal style," wrote her art teacher; a former tutor describes her as "very extreme emotionally"; "she does not exert herself to present ideas and facts in an ordered manner," wrote her geography teacher. She's commenting, of course, on the book itself, a sequence of shifting memories and impressions told in a feverishly introspective style -- autobiography narrated through clenched teeth.
Greenlaw has written librettos for opera and published two novels. She is best known as a poet, and her memoir has the precision and intensity of prose poetry. Her mother's madrigal choir fills a room with "a noise that billowed and folded as if tidying itself away"; listening to music becomes "part of the day's machine." It's a machine that works, ejecting her out of rural England and into the great, busy world of adulthood and London life. "The Importance of Music to Girls" brilliantly traces the shaping of a rich, complex self. The soundtrack's not so bad either. *