Tag Archives: novel

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 of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

This novel was eagerly anticipated by my book club, which read O’Neill’s previous offering; Lullabies for Little Criminals and generally loved it. We were disappointed.

the-girl-who-was-saturday-nightAs the person who chose the book, I read the online reviews, which are all glowing and appreciative of O’Neill’s quirky metaphoric prose so I expected a stellar read. However, the book’s storyline and writing style left us underwhelmed.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is only O’Neill’s second novel since her runaway success Lullabies for Little Criminals came out 7 years ago. And similarly, it’s about a lost girl living on the wrong side of town who eventually finds her place, if not in the sun, then in a warmer spot.

This time the heroine is a French Canadian teen named Nouschka who lives with her twin brother Nicolas and their ailing grandfather Loulou on the seedy side of St. Laurent Blvd. because they’ve been abandoned by both parents – a teenage girl and a famous French Canadian chansonnier. The book is written in English but we’re to imagine the language spoken is French and to remind us of that, O’Neill adds French phrases seemingly randomly throughout the book.

The story takes place during Quebec’s second failed referendum for sovereignty in 1995 and I’m left wondering if the referendum is a metaphor for the failed lives so-far of the two protagonists. Their dreams are wild and magnificent, but their fulfillment, just like sovereignty itself, eludes them.

Through poor life-choices like dropping out of school, marrying the wrong man, aiding in a bank robbery, using drugs and indiscriminate sex, Nouschka’s life spirals out of control until an event changes her path ever so slowly and she pieces her life together. Nouschka’s love of and talent for writing saves her soul from the dead streets of downtown Montreal.  O’Neill had a hard-scrabble life as a youth and I wonder how much of O’Neill’s actual life figures in this novel.

O’Neill’s penchant for metaphor and simile is rampant. I underlined about a hundred metaphors and similes, fascinated by how she compares unrelated elements to describe everything from the countless cats that appear in the book to her character descriptions. While I enjoyed this, the majority of the book club didn’t.

I wanted to like this book, but don’t.  However, it’s an excellent choice for a book club selection because you will be discussing her use of metaphors, plot twists and character development for hours.