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Monday, January 25, 2016

Review of "The Piano Maker" by Kurt Palka

3 Stars
In the 1930s, Hélène Giroux arrives on the French Shore in Nova Scotia.  She becomes the pianist and choirmaster of the church in St. Homais.  Her integration into the life of the village is interspersed with flashbacks to her past:  her family’s piano factory in France pre-WWI, the effects of the Great War on her and her family, her immigration to Canada, and her involvement with Nathan Homewood who finds and sells valuable artifacts.  From the beginning it is clear that Hélène has a dark secret in her past, a secret which she ends up having to confront in a very public way.

I love novels with strong female characters.  And Hélène is certainly resilient and resourceful and stoic.  Unfortunately, I sometimes found her just too adept to be believable.  She is skilled at playing, tuning, and building pianos, so I was impressed.  But then she is able to effortlessly master commanding a dog sled team, so much so that she is told by a guide that “’You are good with the dogs.  They like and respect you.  I’ve seen that only once before.’”  Her being hired as part of a Canadian entourage which is touring Europe to promote Canada to potential immigrants seems incredible since she hasn’t ever been to Canada.  Surely Canada had some accomplished pianists who could have represented their country abroad!

The novel starts slowly.  It is only about half way through that I became more engaged.  What bothered me, however, is that information is constantly being withheld.  That is a cheap way to build suspense.  For example, there is a re-trial because of some new evidence, but the reader is not given any specifics of the case or that evidence.  This vagueness becomes annoying, and the support the defendant receives from so many people when they know virtually nothing about the case stretches credulity. 

It takes a while to become accustomed to the style.  To say the prose is straightforward and restrained would almost be an understatement.  Anyone reading the book aloud would read it in a monotone.  People speak as though some “thing that was in the room right now might break.”  The style is appropriate to the muted emotions that pervade.  The only person who seems to possess passion is the assistant Crown attorney when she is cross-examining the defendant. 

The book is not overly long, yet there are events which serve little purpose.  The assistant Crown attorney pushes the judge to let her introduce the new evidence in the case, but then she insists on asking questions and bringing in her first expert witness – none of this questioning advances her case in the least.  Likewise, the arrival of Hélène’s daughter seems irrelevant.  She arrives and then shortly afterwards returns to London.  Claire spends only one night at her mothers, and there are no mother-daughter conversations that address the serious issues faced by Hélène.  Characters appear and then disappear; this is the case with Lady Ashley.  And what is the point of insisting on Hélène’s going to confession when she insists that she does not believe in the sacrament?  The priest advocates hypocrisy? 

This is a quick and easy read.