The Madrigal

(4 customer reviews)


a novel by Dian Day

Print: 978-1-77133-493-8 – $22.95
ePUB: 978-1-77133-494-5 – $11.99
PDF: 978-1-77133-496-9 – $11.99

382 Pages
June 14, 2018

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The child Frederick and his mother both have secrets. She sings alone in their desultory kitchen; he sneaks out of the house to sing for spare change in front of city bars and nightclubs, his vast repertoire learned from his mother’s lyrical midnight music. His six older brothers run wild, and the sensitive and musically gifted Frederick and his struggling mother are very sure he is not like them at all.

In mid-life, Frederick is deliverer of Canada Post mail; teacher of Voice; keeper of even bigger secrets; caretaker of his demented mother; lousy with dates. Still, it appears that everything is more or less satisfactory and under control…until it becomes obvious that he can’t get away from his past after all.

The Madrigal explores the experience of solitude, the deep longing for elusive connection, the meaning of extraordinary talent, and the role of memories—either involuntarily forgotten or intentionally suppressed—throughout our lives. As each week Frederick steadfastly visits his mother in her nursing home, he brings a unique twist to a timeless journey of self-forgiveness.

“This is a highly refreshing exploration of the twists and turns that life throws at us, whether we’re ordinary mortals or, like Frederick Madrigal, Day’s unforgettable central character, gifted yet cursed. Dian Day weaves great tales and The Madrigal is quite possibly her best.”

—Maura Hanrahan, author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett

The Madrigal is a novel of impeccable structure presented in many voices arranged in counterpoint. Dian Day fascinates the reader as she weaves time past and present, voices lyrical and prosaic, characters brutal and sympathetic, story heart-rending and comic, in short, the tapestry of Frederick’s life, always informed by the music he carries inside him, a legacy from his doomed mother. Carried along on the wave of events, he is forced to face his past. In so doing, he comes to terms with his life. He learns to forgive himself and embrace the future.”

—Cecelia Frey, author of Moments of Joy and Lovers Fall Back to Earth

Dian Day is the author of the award-winning novel The Clock of Heaven. She lives with her partner in rural Nova Scotia.


A Madrigal is a musical setting of secular text for four or six voices, unaccompanied by instruments. Secular, not religious. Four or six, not seven. With a last name like Madrigal, you have to be precise about music.

When people I don’t know very well learn about my involvement in music, they always ask, jokingly, about my instrument. It still makes me blush, though luckily the Madrigals are all dark-complexioned. Women, in particular, ask this question with a hint of sexual energy that suggests they have no idea this joke was overplayed by the time I was fifteen, let alone now, twenty-one years later. I blush for their sakes rather than my own, and I try to answer seriously, as if they were genuinely interested: I play piano, lute, harp, harpsichord, recorder, flute, and the viola d’amore—which, interestingly, has seven strings above the fingerboard and seven below.

I rarely mention that voice is my instrument of choice.


Of course, my family drew a lot of attention. Three sets of identical twins out of the same mother is a very rare thing. It’s fraternal twins, apparently, that tend to run in families. After the SS was born, it was bad enough. People stopped my mother in the street and in the grocery store, some of them to coo and others in simple shock at the reckless multiplying of the lower classes. But after AA came along, there was almost constant attention from the university. Nearly every week, graduate students would call my mother asking if the twins could participate in some research study or other. She always said yes—for a fee. Until they themselves were old enough to say no, my six brothers advanced the causes of biology and psychology considerably.…

When my mother was pregnant with me, the Ns told me that a reporter from the National Enquirer camped out in the empty lot across the street for pretty much the whole duration of her third trimester. When my parents came home from the hospital with one meager child tucked under one of my father’s arms, the reporter packed up and went home to Boca Raton, Florida. Since I was born in late November, he was probably doubly unimpressed.

4 reviews for The Madrigal

  1. inannaadmin

    Guest Post: Dian Day’s The Madrigal
    reviewed by James Fisher, The Miramichi Reader
    Consumed by Ink – July 12, 2018

    Have you ever read a book in which the setting is a place you know well, such as your hometown? It really locks you into the story at an initial stage, doesn’t it? Such is the case with The Madrigal by Dian Day (2018, Inanna Publishing). The main, or present-day setting is in Kingston ON, and while the city is not named as such, all the familiar street names are there as well as other well-known landmarks. Since I wasn’t expecting this, it made reading The Madrigal all that more personal.

    The Madrigal is narrated by Frederick Madrigal, the seventh son of his mother who previously bore three sets of twins, all boys. Frederick’s father leaves almost right after he is born, thus Frederick has no recollection of him, so he is never missing a father figure. What he does recollect, as being the youngest boy in a family of seven, is being poor with the dilapidated house (and his mother) being overrun by an out-of-control six-pack herd of growing boys, devouring food at an alarming pace and coming and going as they pleased. Young Frederick is also the victim of his brother’s bullying, so he has no lingering affection for them in his later years. What he fondly does recall is his mother’s sweet midnight singing, alone in the peaceful kitchen, while Frederick listened from his nearby bedroom.

    “My mother had a secret: she sang like an angel. She sang through the deepest part of the night in the kitchen, over the sound of the washing machine that went on for hours: load after load of boys’ thinned-kneed trousers, in four sizes. For years, I sat hidden in the dark doorway of my room and watched her sing her soul out; I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”

    Frederick too is gifted with a voice, one that he, at the age of eleven uses to make money for singing lessons at The Whole Note music store (run by Ed, who will soon become one of his benefactors) by singing on the streets outside the downtown bar area at night. He has to store his cash at The Whole Note so his brothers won’t find it. Picked up by Constable Miller, he is taken home and asked to show up at the police station two days later. Constable Miller becomes another of his benefactors and he is soon singing in the choir at St. Georges in Kingston. There, he is scouted out by St. Mary’s Choir School in Toronto and is offered a scholarship on the spot. Frederick believes this is God’s answer to his prayer to get him away from his life at home.

    Frederick tells his story in a present-past-present style that keeps the story flowing at two levels: with Frederick dealing with his present issues (he is very much an introvert, works as a mail delivery person, refuses to sing in public, a mother who has suffered a major stroke and now speaks in confused riddles, and now Ed’s health is declining) as well as relating his past issues that keep haunting him (something happened to cause a rift and consequent problems between him and his best friend at St. Mary’s, Alex Hughes).

    At 370 pages, this is a large read, but the story demands it, and the pages fly by. I found it interesting (but not odd) that a female author captures the male voice so well. In fact, the story is dominated by males of all types, with only Frederick’s mother, Ed’s sister Annie (with whom Frederick boards while attending St. Mary’s) and his next-door neighbour Maya with the most prominent female roles.

    The foremost source of discord in The Madrigal is what happened between Frederick and Alex just before their final Christmas concert appearance. They were both to go on to Julliard, but neither one did, and both their lives took very different paths. The many veiled and direct references to this rift throughout the book serve to heighten the suspense and bring Frederick, through some well-penned inner-directed contemplations (spurred on by the failing health of his mother as well as that of Ed, who still owns the sad little music store) to conclusions he can no longer ignore and now must confront if he is to move on to the second half of his life.

    “Slowly, I begin to understand that loss can make us cranky with what we have that remains. We look around, and everything is meaningless. Why did you take this and not that? we yell to the heavens. Other things I could have spared! […] We just want back what we have lost.”

    The Madrigal
    is an exceptionally good read, one that I couldn’t wait to return to, and along the way provides some sound life-lessons to ponder.

  2. Renée Knapp

    The Madrigal by Dian Day
    reviewed by Consumed by Ink – April 15, 2019

    The Madrigal had me from the very first paragraph…

    I was the aberration in my family: a single child. My mother had three sets of identical twins, and then me. Two boys, two boys, two boys. At least if I had been a girl it would have been some consolation for all of us. But I was not; I was the seventh boy, as unremarkable as anyone’s child, born without my other half.

    First, I wondered what it would be like to be the mother of seven boys. Then, I wondered what it would be like to be that seventh, unremarkable boy, living with six older brothers who all had built-in companions. The Madrigal explores all of this, and more.

    My brothers either never left me alone, or left me alone all the time. I was, perpetually, either completely overwhelmed or profoundly lonely. I imagine it was the same for my mother.

    Frederick, however, had something his brothers did not have – a beautiful voice and a love of music.

    In my life, music has both saved me and destroyed me.

    Late at night, when he was supposed to be in bed, Frederick would hear his mother singing to herself in the kitchen, or while doing the laundry.

    Alone in the kitchen with my spent mother, I heard my first symphonies.

    It was at night, unknowingly, that she taught me how to feel.

    His love of music helped to fill up his lonely childhood.

    From the beginning I heard music everywhere, from the safety of a myriad of silent hiding places. The thudding feet, thrown balls, and door slamming of my brothers gave way to an even more boisterous symphony of the street, to which I listened from behind the elderberry, green and shady enough in summer to hide a small child. The ground was always cool, and damp stained the thin seat of my already thrice-worn shorts. I leaned up against the crumbling brickwork and listened to hissing buses, impatient drivers, and frantic dogs as a backdrop to the robins’ gentle melody line. It was like a song about a lost world.

    When I went to school, I hid under the half-flight of steps at the bottom of the stairwell and listened to the fearful buzzer that called children in from the playground – all wound up like metal springs from sugar and bullying, their voices a battlefield – and I felt the vibrations of a hundred feet rise above my head like a percussive detonation. It was a song about the end of the world, where only dust was left in the ensuing silence.

    The narrative goes back and forth between young Frederick and present-day Frederick as he recounts his life story in an effort to make sense of who he is.

    I imagine that most people feel, at times, that their lives have been co-opted by forces beyond their control. Who gets to choose what happens? We are never safe from blameless accident, from misguided goodwill – nor yet from careless stupidity and unintentional evil… I am not exceptional in having lived some of these things; my small story fades into nothing, ‘a niente’, compared to that of countless others. So why tell it? I suppose because making peace with a small story is as important as making peace with a large one. For most of us the tragedies are not absolute. We get up and go on, in some deep way transmuted from our formal selves, but usually not visibly so. And then we spend the rest of our lives trying to answer the question: What the hell happened?

    Frederick grows up to be the kind of guy who takes a lot of books out from the library because he’s in love with the librarian.

    I’m the kind of guy who appears to be a bargain garment until the seams are more closely examined. Women like me all right, until they get to know me. Once they do, they decide I’m strange, and a strange man might do anything. They suspect me of being unpredictable, even though I am pretty much the most boringly predictable guy in the entire world. After a few dates, they clamour for a refund.

    After being discovered, as a youngster, singing on street corners for money to pay for music lessons, Frederick receives a scholarship to attend St. Mary’s Choir school in Toronto. He is so relieved to be out of his house and away from his brothers that he never looks back.

    I put on my school uniform, and my previous life wore thin and faded away like my hand-me-down jeans.

    He thought he had it made – that his struggles were behind him and ease and comfort (and Julliard) lay ahead.

    Now, as a quiet Canada Post mail carrier, back in his hometown, Frederick no longer sings in public. He visits his mother at the nursing home once a month, relieving some of the guilt he feels about leaving her so readily. But he is still oppressed by remorse about what happened between himself and his friend Alex all those years ago in Toronto; one short moment that he can not take back.

    We didn’t call it bullying in those days. We didn’t call it anything. We didn’t ever once think that what we were saying out loud in the school yard and under our breaths in the cathedral vestry had the power to shift the entire swirling world under our still-growing feet.

    Over the course of the book, I became very attached to Frederick. I wanted to hug his mother and strangle his brothers. I wanted to cheer for the kindness of the individuals who helped him and hiss at the boys whose influence led to tragedy. I felt disappointed in young Frederick, but protective at the same time. I wanted so badly for him to be able to shed the weight he carried around with his mail bag and be happy. I wanted the librarian to notice him. I wanted him to have the twin he longed for. I wanted him to be able to forgive his brothers (for his sake, not theirs), and to forgive himself.

    Dian Day has created a character in Frederick that is unlike any other character I’ve read before.

    There are three kind of people who sing. The first and the best – the ones I wait for with my fluttering heart caught behind my sternum – are the kind whose immeasurable emotion spills out freely with the words and music. Their faces, their whole bodies, their entire lives, the expanding capacity of their love, pour out among the rafters.

    Further Reading:

    Those of you with very good memories may remember having seen this book reviewed on my blog before. James at The Miramichi Reader reviewed it as a Guest on my blog back in July. As is usually the case, he mentions things that I haven’t (and vice versa), so please check it out. We both highly recommend it!

    James also interviewed Dian Day on his blog: “I’m not sure I would oppose real life with vivid imagination. I think we can keep living in this brutal/beautiful world only because we imagine. We all make up stories about everything, that we believe, or come to believe, whether or not they are true, whether or not there is anything that is Really True, and whether or not we write them down. Novel-writing is just one way of being more intentional and conscious and up-front about those stories.”

    In an interview at Open Books, Dian Day talks about how her book came to be (“Then one day I met the child Frederick in a desolate ‘handyman’s special’ being shown to me by a real estate agent.“), the central questions of her book (“With Frederick’s help, I wanted to explore if and how we can move beyond past traumatic events, especially if we hold ourselves responsible for them.”), and what, for her, defines a great book (“I crave character-driven stories grounded in credible worlds.“).

  3. Renée Knapp

    “Mad Studies” – The Madrigal by Dian Day
    reviewed by Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 135-137 – October 2019

    Dian Day’s The Madrigal is startlingly realistic in comparison with the other two texts reviewed here. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Frederick Madrigal, the seventh and youngest son in a family with three sets of male identical twins, who is now approaching middle age and caring for a mother with severe vascular dementia. Frederick is also an extraordinary musical talent for whom choral school in Toronto was a ticket out of poverty and small town eastern Ontario. Day’s novel depicts Frederick’s search for “connection, comprehension, and community” as he struggles with his loss of faith, with the long term consequences of aggressive adolescent power-jockeying at a boys’ private school, and with attempting to connect with his ever-retreating mother. Day deftly weaves together the intricacies of Frederick’s musical genius; she uses musical terminology to describe Frederick’s experience of the world around him. (He notices the “crow’s atonal talk,” or states “I knocked my forehead against the top edge of the fridge—largamente.”)

    Furthermore, Frederick’s tangents into musical history and philosophizing are both endearing and sufficiently eccentric to give an impression of why Frederick might be struggling to form social connections. However, it is also this first person narration that at times risks the reader failing to question Day’s sympathetic protagonist’s assumptions—for example when he suggests he can understand his mother’s remaining connection to “the vast quaggy mudpuddle of human emotional experience.” That being said, the book’s strength emerges from moments of connection of which Day’s quirky narrator seems almost unaware—his begrudging friendship with the overly-friendly next door neighbor; his ongoing attempt to have a non-patronizing relationship with Luke, who collects bottles on his street; the codependent relationship he has with the elderly owner of the local music shop, and the music he is able to make with his mother perhaps because of her condition. These moments stand out in the nearly four hundred pages of The Madrigal, and remind me of the haphazard forms of community that are found in Persimmon Blackbridge’s Prozac Highway or in Margaret Gibson’s “Making It.” While Day’s content is less edgy than that of Blackbridge or Gibson, her depiction of her characters’ support for each other is no less necessary a representation of an alternative community of care.

  4. Brenda Damen

    I finished reading The Madrigal last night. It is sitting next to me. I miss Frederick already. I wish he could step out of the book and be my real-life neighbour or deliver my mail.
    I can still hear the bells over the doors, see the dust motes, smell the streets, hear the coins jingling as Frederick backs into the shadows for a moment to hide them in case his brothers come down the street.

    Frederick’s life is set to the music of the world around him. He could tell, for example, with his eyes closed, which shop he was entering on his mail route, just by the sound of the bells over the door. He imagines composing a piece of music centering on the opening and closing of doors.

    Theodore Zeldin, philosopher and historian, said: “The kind of conversation I’m interested in is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person.” Reading this book was that kind of conversation.

    I first heard about The Madrigal in an article by James M. Fisher in the Miramichi Review. I loved what he said: “Both of Ms. Day’s books have an element of intrigue about them; something that kept lurking around the fringes of the story.”
    The book has such a rich warmth of language and so many shockingly beautiful phrases. Two examples out of hundreds:
    1. “The oesophagus of the river.”
    2. (kids on the school playground) “all wound up like metal springs from sugar and bullying.”
    I wanted to capture them all like Frederick’s coins and contain them, but couldn’t stop reading long enough to write them down. I can’t wait to read this book again to discover them all over again.

    There are moments that are so hilarious I had to stop and wipe my eyes after laughing too hard, so that I could see to go on reading.

    As I read, I kept wishing my mom was still alive to share it with. This is just the kind of book we would have loved to reminisce about together.

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