The Piano Maker / Kurt Palka
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
I picked up this new novel as it came across the desk at the library, drawn in by the lovely quiet cover and the premise: Helene Giroux, a Frenchwoman in her 40s, arrives in a small town on the French shore of Nova Scotia, sometime in the 30s. She seems to be running from a dark secret in her past...which is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks.
While the first chapter or two were mildly interesting, I ended up getting invested in it fairly quickly. Helene was an interesting character; she grew up in France, the daughter of a successful piano maker, and becomes an accomplished piano maker, factory owner, and pianist herself.
But of course, 1914 is coming...and during the war, Helene loses everything. Acquaintance Nathan Homewood, an American who handled their North American sales, offers to sell all the finely laid away wood in her barn -- and does so, while telling her that it was all lost at sea. When she discovers his theft years later, she forces him to pay her back the thousands he had stolen. But at the same time, she agrees to join forces with him in his latest project, antiquities dealing. At this point, Helene has made her way to safety in Montreal, but is living right on the edge of survival -- and though Nathan had cheated her, their long acquaintance and her need for income convince her to join him.
When the story opens, however, she is settling into her new small town life as an enigmatic stranger...until the RCMP places her under house arrest, to be retried for the murder of Nathan Homewood in 1929.
The book weaves back and forth, revealing more of Helene's past and her long relationship with Nathan. It moves from France to England to Montreal, taking side trips to Northern Quebec and Alberta. The small town setting seems to be the one still point in Helene's life, which allows the narrative to rove to the action in her past. This means the book starts out a bit slowly, though, until her past begins to be shared. Still, the story is enough to keep you turning pages, waiting to find out just what her deep dark secret is. And there is enough in it to make you consider rights and wrongs and consequences.
The one false note for me was Helene's daughter Claire -- she isn't developed enough to become a recognizable character in herself, and for some strange reason, she calls Helene "Mom" throughout the second half of the book, which seems unlikely both because of era and because of its glaring Americanism -- surely French born, England dwelling Claire would be using Maman or Mum, at the very least. A small quibble, but one that struck the ear each time it was used.
This is not a deep, poetic novel, despite its various romantic settings and the musical element of piano making. It's an adventure tale, with recognizable types and episodic events revealed slowly for suspense. It's enjoyable as such, and I found Helene to be a mysterious and engaging heroine. Her life in France was memorable, and her foray into Northern Alberta was gripping, even if slightly implausible - again, adventure reigns supreme. This is one that I'd recommend to book clubs -- an entertaining story told in a style somewhere between literary and adventure yarn, and lots in it to talk about.
Doreen at Schatje's Shelves says "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."
Diane Schuller says "This is a well written mystery with a strong female lead. I really appreciated the straightforward manner in which this book was written. The mystery of why Helene, the protagonist, ended up where she was and what had occurred before she arrived kept me continually wanting to know more."