DEBORAH Levy majors in that mood indigo. You ain’t been blue as Elsa M Anderson, the central character of her new novel. Elsa wakes up one morning to find she’s trashed her career after walking off stage in Vienna. A double (real or imagined?) tells her: “You were a famous pianist. And then you lost it.”

Elsa was born near Ipswich in Suffolk; this she knows but not who her father was. Her foster parents are a blur. Recognised as a prodigy she’s raised and mentored by the portentous figure of Arthur Epstein, a legendary teacher at the keys.

Elsa is now on the run from London to Greece to Paris to Sardinia. She’s trying, all these years later, to deal with abandonment by her (post-partum psychotic?) mother. She’s never felt more like singing the blues. She even dyes her hair blue.

The pandemic intensifies Elsa’s isolation. Levy mixes lockdown depression into Elsa’s bitter cocktail of gloom and colours her Mediterranean exile a curaçao cobalt with its blue seas, its blue masks.

Elsa recognises she lives in another time of sadness to that of her hero, Rachmaninov.

Broadcast news offers no relief with its litany of terror, its drone attacks, and its tyrants aided and abetted by their (unnamed) “consorts and enablers”.

Elsa tries not to think about them because “they had too much attention anyway”.

For Elsa music is now a poor palliative – Rachmaninov doesn’t do it for her anymore. There are many references to the maudlin classics, enough for a weepy Spotify playlist.

We hear in our heads the purple tones of Chopin’s mazurkas, Ligeti’s mournful cello.

All the while Elsa’s double tells her she’s “ducking and diving” with her own history.

Those thoughts, those voices, move her “inwards and downwards” and she contemplates a “vertical swim”.

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But she knows (as with Tyler Okonma’s tough love logic) to keep those 10 toes up because if them 10 toes down means she’s fucked up.

What of her audience? Some are unenlightened. Dealing with mental illness is not their forte. They demand a refund after she scarpers.

In Paris she eats sea-urchins and recognises she’s a bit like them: spiky on the outside, soft as mush inside.

Elsa reminds us of Lise – the doomed anti-heroine of Muriel Spark’s masterpiece The Driver’s Seat – her name a near homophone. Like Lise, Elsa’s dress sense is eccentric, that hair colouring a marker for her inner unease.

How could she be otherwise? Arthur, her mentor, has no time for “plodding mediocrities”; the privileges he has fomented have othered Elsa.

Andrew, his bitchy partner, is brilliantly drawn with his beard “threaded with silver” that “made him seem kinder than he was in life”.

Elsa is mentally flailing. She’s always somewhere else or someone else’s. She lives in fear of ending up a rough sleeper. She feels and fears the stigma of the unloved.

Musical chimes make for neat aural gags: we hear and see that in France they really do kiss on Main Street. Levy’s clever patterning impresses: details stick in memory like gum on a shoe sole or as an insect in amber.

A dragonfly brooch is recalled when its real-life equivalent appears in a later chapter “like a turquoise needle with wings”.

Doubles are everywhere…

The Double in literature as theme has been around forever – we’re pointed to Dostoevsky, our own James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson. Then there’s Nabokov’s Hermann from his novel Despair.

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Levy puts a spin on Hermann’s notion of the doppelganger, his delusion that there’s someone identical to him wandering around. Elsa might be suffering from a variant of this condition first described by the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras.

Has Elsa’s mother been replaced by an identical imposter?

Levy knows her aberrant psychology – she’s written on Freud’s patients – and knows too how carers of the mentally ill can enter a folie à deux as with one of the minor characters here, Aimée.

This is a post-Covid tale, its tone fatigued, lilac saddened. The general sense that our collective lives were unspooling pointlessly is captured by Levy’s spare, unflashy, prose.

Her novel, her room, is coloured blue, blue, electric blue.

The moral here seems to be this: listen hard to music but listen more to words.