In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
A. J. Gnuse’s novel Girl in the Walls is a compelling and unforgettable debut.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“Strange, outré—this remarkable debut novel is both of these and more… Gnuse has done a brilliant job of making the implausible plausible and of creating characters, especially Eddie, who are simply unforgettable. The Louisiana setting is evocative and a marvel of verisimilitude. The sui-generis result is haunting and, like the characters, unforgettable.”
Girl in the Walls is the story of eleven-year-old Elise. She’s an orphan who’s escaped from foster care, and with nowhere else to go, she’s returned to her old home in a rural neighborhood just outside New Orleans. The problem: there’s a new family living there. So, Elise hides in the attic and walls, sneaking out when the family leaves for the day to search for the small, remaining objects that belonged to her parents. Meanwhile, the new family becomes increasingly suspicious of the sounds they hear when their house is quiet.
What a delight to select a playlist for this novel, which really is sort of a book about noises—everything we hear in our homes over the course of the day, and what those sounds might mean. The playlist I came up with here is an idiosyncratic one, but Girl in the Walls is an idiosyncratic story. It’s part literary meditation on grief, part modern Gothic thriller, set in swampy south Louisiana, with odd, mischievous characters (with even a Norse god making an appearance). It was so much fun writing this novel and selecting these songs to suit it. I hope you enjoy them, too.
Give It Up (Gypsy Second Line) – Dr. Michael White
My hometown of New Orleans is a place where people know how to produce a good musical banger. Dr. White—a brilliant clarinetist—is one of my favorite local musicians. He actually wrote an album inspired by my childhood neighborhood—which was the same rural neighborhood that was my inspiration for Girl in the Walls. This track comes from that album, Dancing in the Sky, and it’s a perfect theme for the book. Playful and mischievous, I hear a building tension between the crooning clarinet, bold horns, and crack of the drums. The song breaks into solos, before the band rejoins in a rollicking conclusion. I love songs that end big. I love books that do that, too.
Paper Lace – Swan Lake
Spencer Krug’s warbling voice is so delightfully strange to me—I’m a fan of all the bands he’s been in, and there’s been a good few. Listening to him is like hearing a new instrument, like if a theremin could sing with a human voice. Odd, but at the same time, he sounds so sincere and vulnerable. I think it’s wonderful. Singers like him make me braver when I write. “Paper Lace” is a quiet song, and I’ve always found it moving, with themes about the comfort that comes from returning home and from the people we have there. I love thinking about Elise’s story when hearing lines like these:
And when you’re done crying to everyone,
You can go back to your good home,
She will be tired, but she’ll be glad,
When you go back to your good home
Don’t Phunk With My Heart – The Black Eyed Peas
This track was chosen by Elise. In the novel, it’s a song that comes on the radio at a time when she’s home alone and feeling at her safest. This song was huge in 2005, the year when this novel is set, and an eleven-year-old girl like Elise can’t help but dance to it. Hell, I can’t help it, either. There’s something about those first few seconds which feels like a huge curtain pulling back. Another thing I like about the song, and part of the reason it made it into the novel, is its refrain: “I wonder if I take you home, will you still be in love with me?” While a song about a woman wondering whether a man’s love for her is genuine couldn’t be further from the story of Girl in the Walls, I did like the odd rhyming element of uncertainty—of how allowing someone into your home might reveal he was lying to you the whole time. Those who have read the book will be familiar with a certain character who isn’t so clear as to what his full intentions are, until he crosses the threshold of the house. I love that there’s a little ominousness lurking even in such a fun song like this.
Dancing in the Moonlight – King Harvest
Good God, this is such a magical song—it turns the idea of nighttime into something electric and joyful. I love night walks in my old childhood neighborhood, and how freeing they can feel, especially with a set of headphones. And with no one around who can see me—I admit, I absolutely am dancing out there. I imagine for Elise, the freedom she feels at night, once everyone is asleep, is something similar. And if there was one song I could think of to summarize the joy of writing Girl in the Walls, this would be it.
Orpheo Looks Back – Andrew Bird
The story of Orpheus is—what? More than two thousand years old? And yet, I can’t think about the story without feeling a sharp pang in my heart. Orpheus, gifted the chance to bring his partner back from the underworld because of his musical talent, can’t help but look back too soon, whisking her away to the darkness of the afterlife. Andrew Bird returns the ancient story to vibrant life in this song, and through the upbeat tempo and plucked violin strings, he captures the hope at the heart of that sad story—that even though Orpheus failed, he still had a chance, with his music, to do the impossible. In Girl in the Walls, Elise also hopes to do the impossible. Through her hiding—her own kind of artistry—she tries to hold the world in stasis, and keep the memory of her parents alive.
Fireworks – Mitski
Mitski’s music always is surprising and experimental, but in such approachable ways. “Fireworks” comes from her album Puberty 2, which often deals with coming-of-age themes, particularly those of girls. So many tracks on that album like “Fireworks” emote this sense of mystery and wonder. I love thinking about the feeling of this song linking with Elise’s own coming-of-age story.
Selig – Helium Vola
In the novel, Elise delights in reading a book of various Norse myths, and because of that, Odin—yes, the one-eyed Norse god—ends up a character here. I felt I’d be remiss not to give a musical shoutout to him, since he’s one of my favorite characters. He’d appreciate this track by Helium Vola, an electric-medieval band who took ancient Germanic lyrics and brought them back in modern orchestration. Odin tells Elise near the end of the novel, no one is ever truly gone. And maybe the same is true for songs.
Dance of the Knights – Sergei Prokoviev
Girl in the Walls is a quiet meditation that gradually builds in tension, the volume steadily rising, so that the final acts end up looking a lot like a thriller. The dance that Elise does throughout the course of the book—slipping between the walls and crawlspaces to stay hidden—ultimately becomes necessary for her survival. Originally a part of Prokoviev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet, “Dance of the Knights” is an unsettling work that varies wildly in its musical dynamics, and even the quiet parts creep with suspense. The strings mimic the short, jagged moves of a knight across a chessboard, and I think the piece provides an excellent soundtrack for the crisis moment of this novel—when a storm comes, and a trespasser tears Elise’s home apart to find her.
Ellis Marsalis Jr. – Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans
To finish the playlist, a New Orleans legend playing a classic local song with a melody that is somehow both light and longing, both cantering and sad. Ellis plays this version with grace and inventiveness, dancing around the theme, adjusting and finding the spaces for his own style to show through. It’s what Elise does in her home in this novel, and it’s what I long to do with my own writing. The past year ended up taking Ellis from us, along with so many others. I’m grateful we still can hear him play, even if it’s only a recording.
A native of New Orleans, A. J. Gnuse received an MFA in fiction from UNC Wilmington and was a Kenyon Review Peter Taylor Fellow. His short stories have been published in Gulf Coast, Guernica, the Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Potomac Review, and other magazines. Girl in the Walls is his first novel. He lives in Texas.