Tag Archives: Canadian literature

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka

Two-hundred eighty-eight pages. Published by McClelland & Stewart.

pianomakerimageThe 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.

Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

cellist.jpgPutting a face on the horrors of war and celebrating determination are the hallmarks of the Cellist of Sarajevo. There are actually three faces here and the book’s chapters skip from person to person to person and their individual struggles with the Bosnian war. The three main characters never meet and lead completely separate lives in Sarajevo.

Kenan is a husband and father who is stripped of the ability to work and earn a living. He now fetches fresh drinking water weekly for his family. Each treacherous journey may be his last. Dragan is an older man who has hung on to his job at a bakery and lives with his sister and her family, having sent his own family to safety in Italy. Arrow is an unlikely army recruit; a reluctant sharpshooter who chooses her own targets.

The three protagonists have one thing in common: They risk their lives to watch the cellist of Sarajevo perform Albinoni’s Adagio weekly in a public square. The sad slow piece is the cellist’s personal tribute to the 22 souls who lost their lives standing in line for bread when they came under mortar fire.

This is a fictional account of real life cellist Vedran Smailović who did actually play Albinoni’s Adagio and other classical pieces among the ruins of Sarajevo. That’s where reality ends and Galloway’s imagination takes over as he creates characters living around the unnamed cellist’s weekly performances.

Galloway writes clearly and simply with vivid details of life’s daily struggles in a city under siege but only one character really engaged me and she is Arrow. Galloway delves into her mind to explain her internal conflict with her role in the war. I wanted to know more about her. With Clint Eastwood’s movie American Sniper currently glorified in the media, Galloway’s more complicated, darker and ultimately hopeless portrait has an opposite effect.

For me, Arrow saved this book.