Two-hundred eighty-eight pages. Published by McClelland & Stewart.
The bot-boiler that almost was. That’s the best way to sum up this sixth novel by Canadian author Kurt Palka. The last third of the book makes slogging through the first two-thirds worthwhile. If the author wrote the rest of the novel in such vivid colour as he did the courtroom drama and Canadian North flashbacks, this would be a potboiler, but it isn’t.
All the ingredients are there; World War 1, forbidden love, love lost, unrequited love, exotic travels and dangerous business liaisons. Instead, we’re treated to the plain tale of a middle-age French-born piano maker, Hélène Giroux. Her youth is marred by the war, as she learns to manage the family’s piano business. An encounter with an American scoundrel/businessman Nathan Homewood at first appears to salvage what’s left of the ruined business but the ultimate price Hélène pays is far greater than either of them could have imagined.
The book opens in the 1930s when Hélène arrives in a fictional Nova Scotia town to apply for the position of a church pianist. Through flashbacks and veiled references, we learn that Hélène is evading a secret past that involves, a death, a mental institution, a deformed foot and an illicit trade. All this should make for an enticing narrative but Palka’s rendering is muted and even dull.
Hélène’s past catches up with her when an RCMP officer informs Hélène she’s being arrested for the death of her former business partner. She was cleared of any wrong doing in a previous trial but new information comes to light.
Palka cranks it up a notch in the court room scenes with the thrilling telling of the events that led to her business partner’s death. Almost suddenly, we learn the strength, courage and resourcefulness Hélène hides from view. I couldn’t put the book down at this point.
If you rip through novels in days, then add this to your list. If you only manage to find the time to read the occasional novel, wait for something more captivating.