Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

What happens if the deep bond between brother and sister is broken?

Nocture book cover April 13 p178

At the end of July 2009, novelist Helen Humphreys’ brother Martin was diagnosed with cancer. By December, he was dead. Nocturne chronicles the months in between: the time during which his illness progressed and his sister struggled to cope with his deterioration and her own fear and sadness. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and like many of Humphreys’ own earlier novels, this is a spare book, a deceptively simple accumulation of events, to catastrophic emotional effect.

Nocturne is told in 45 short segments, one for each year of pianist Martin’s life. The segments aren’t chronological but loop back and forth over the course of his relationship with his sister, in much the same way a piano concerto moves up and down the keyboard. The book is infused with the particular intimacy of siblings who have known each other deeply for their entire lives. It is also infused with sorrow at the inadequacy of art in the face of human suffering. “This space that I write these words down in is the space after the music has left,” Humphreys writes.

“It is that silence in the concert hall after the last note of the piano has been struck and held, and the whispers of that note hush down to nothing.”

Nocturne, Helen Humphreys, $31. Available at and


Alison Pick is the author of Far to Go, which was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.