The Universe Playing Strings
by R. M. Kinder



University Of New Mexico Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-826-35741-0.
Reviewed by Diane Stanton
Posted on 04/12/2017

Fiction: Mainstream

In The Universe Playing Strings, author R. M. Kinder lures her reader into the world of bluegrass music. She skillfully develops four distinctly different voices and blends them together to give life to four musicians. Carl Bradshaw, also known as "Pops" is the strongest voice of the story. He's a skilled fiddler who earns his keep doing string instrument repair. His words introduce and close this story set in in Tucson, Arizona. Amy Chandler, the young proud owner of a Martin-28, is a skilled guitarist and performer. Jack Martin, son of a famous author, is a determinedly independent performer and songwriter. And Cora Leban is an older woman of lesser musical confidence who hovers around the edge of the musical jam sessions.

Their love of music and performance provides the foundation to the friendship of these four string players. Kinder plays them each as transparent and sincere, flawed and sympathetic, with remarkably distinct voices. Like the jam sessions portrayed throughout the book, each character steps forward to play his/her part in a given chapter and then falls back to yielding center stage to the life circumstances of another. They abide by the courtesy of the bluegrass players culture and customs as decribed in Kinder's narration. In individual chapters, each character offers a central narrative voice followed by an opportunity to be a supporting character in the following chapter. This varied narrative perspective adds a depth and texture to Kinder's characters and story

Kinder weaves character development into the growth of musical talents. The players grow more confident, become integrated members of the bluegrass community, and gradually gravitate toward gaining perspective in their personal lives as well.

Midway through the novel, Pop reveals to the reader the nature of his attraction to this community. He observes, "The smells of cooking and cigarette smoke wafted everywhere. And music. Strains of different songs mingled. Altered when another musician entered. Constantly changing so it would go most of the night, the blend like a separate melody altogether. God, he loved music and musicians. When he stood still and closed his eyes, he'd swear the universe was playing strings."

This is not a dramatic or suspenseful story that will drive you to read into the early morning hours. It is a story that slowly acquaints the reader with the intimate foibles of individual players while offering keen insights into a community of amateur musicians.


R. M. Kinder is the author of a novel, An Absolute Gentleman, and two books of short fiction, A Near-Perfect Gift and Sweet Angel Band and Other Stories, as well as a coauthor of a dual-media biography, Old-Time Fiddling: Hal Sappington, Missouri Fiddler. She is a professor emerita of English at the University of Central Missouri and an editor emerita of the literary journal Pleiades and Pleiades Press. Visit her website.

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