High School Musical

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As a 12-year-old on a state-sponsored school music program, Janice Galloway fell in love with a closet full of musical instruments: "Narnia be buggered," she writes in her new memoir, All Made Up, "this was real enchantment."

Music offered glorious escape from a claustrophobic home in 1960s-and-'70s small-town Scotland, where Galloway lived with a violent sister and a mother "who had a genius for finding leaden linings." And music has remained a passionate leitmotif in the award-winning author's life ever since, inspiring an operatic collaboration with composer Sally Beamish and a novel, Clara, based upon the life of Clara Schumann, the celebrated pianist and wife of the Romantic composer Robert Schumann.

All Made Up is the sequel to 2008's This Is Not About Me — her first, equally evocative reminiscence — and focuses on Galloway's teenage years as she starts high school (excelling at music and literature), falls for her first boyfriend (at 15), rebels in the typical ways (moodiness, thigh-high boots and glittery eye shadow) then heads off to university.

Like the earlier work, the book contains, amid the grit and brutality, beautifully written moments of joy. What did an emotionally arid household and dreary provincial town matter when there was the happiness of cracking the magical code of Latin? "Words and phrases that at first glance were alien, obscure or downright weird could be broken down into components which joined and split apart like pop-beads to reveal — meaning. It was astounding." If family life was devoid of physical contact besides beatings, spine-tingling first kisses from boys could be had instead: "There was an unexpectedly frisky array of chemicals at work under my touch-paper skin, ready to catch at the slightest spark." And ultimately there was literature: "Nobody told me Shakespeare would be a thrill." It became the vehicle through which Galloway pursued "the pleasure of creating something where nothing had been," publishing her first stories in 1986.

The most affecting parts of Galloway's new book document her relationship with her sister, who died in 2000. Nora (called Cora in the book) was older by nearly 17 years, glamorous and capricious, possessing a "casual cruelty" of the kind that masks depression and deep-seated vulnerability. "I was worried that my [portrayal] wasn't vivid enough," says Galloway — rather needlessly, since the figure of Nora bestrides the book as vividly and as colossally as she did in life. "You noticed when my sister came into a room. I wanted that to come across. She had a dazzling amount of energy. She could have lit up a city, but she never got the chance." The sisters' lives ultimately diverge, with Galloway's own world expanding as Nora's remains static, bogged down by a failed marriage and job as a typist. Their growing distance generates some of the most poignant moments of All Made Up.

These days, Galloway lives with her son and husband near Glasgow, less than 50 km from the coastal Ayrshire town where she was raised. And yet it may as well be a universe away. Nobody can say with certainty why some individuals transcend dreadful childhoods while others fail. But a "sense of entitlement to reach" — which Galloway says she got from a sympathetic teacher — is surely essential, as is some idea of the things to be reached for. Education can impart that. So can love, art, sport or, in the 12-year-old Galloway's case, a cupboard of musical instruments. "My son's father was a concert pianist," she says of music's continued presence in her life. "My husband is an opera singer and my son is a thrash-metal drummer, so I'm surrounded by it." A fitting coda.