The Piano Man's Daughter
Reviewed: October 8, 2002
By: Timothy Findlay
541 pages, $8.99
returned to the works of Timothy Findley out of guilt shortly after he died in
the spring. The Piano Man's Daughter
has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, but I put off reading it after
finding Headhunters, his previous
novel, a bit more disturbing than I liked. I might have known that he wouldn't
repeat quite that gruesome scenario again. Each of his novels has its own share
of pain and sorrow, but each approaches life in a somewhat different manner.
The Piano Man's Daughter is a
multi-generational tale, one which spans the period from 1889 to 1939, which is
where Charlie Kilworth's narrative actually begins.
open with the death of Charlie's mother, Lily, but we go back well before that
to the events which brought Lily herself into the world. Lily was the immediate
result of her mother's sexual awakening at the age of 23. Ede had never shown
any interest in men before the coming of the Piano Man to the town of
McCaskill's Mills.† She would never have
guessed that Thomas Wyatt would become the father of her daughter, the child
conceived and born in a field at Munsterfield, the Kilworth farm, nor that he
would die before they could marry as they had planned on that day.
would not have predicted that Lily would inherit the family curse, which seemed
to have skipped a generation. Lily had epilepsy, a condition little understood
at the turn of the 19th century. It was probably more significant that she had
an unhealthy fascination with fire, but Charlie was more aware of that than
probably anyone else in her life. They knew the story of old John Fagan in the
old country, but they didn't make the connection. Charlie didn't either, not
really, not until years later.
All of this meant that Lily was just the wrong person to be in a family headed by Harry Wyatt, the head of the Wyatt Piano Company and therefore another piano man. It took him seven years to
propose to the woman who had been his brotherís lover. He meant well, but his
life was wrapped up in notions of propriety and success. He loved Ede, but she
was to be a component of his rise in social status. Lily, on the other hand,
was something he eventually found to be an embarrassment. She was hidden in a
special attic room in their Toronto home whenever they had company, and
eventually she was shipped off to a boarding school, where she developed the
friendships which shaped the rest of her life.
Her life takes her to pre-war England during the years 1908-14, where she lives
repeats her motherís history, giving birth to a child out of wedlock, but in a
vastly different social setting where it is not quite such a shock to people.
Charlie is her constant companion from then until the day she has to be
institutionalized in order to save her life. It is he who lives through her
obsession with fire, her strange moods, the fairy tale existence of her manic
periods and the black days of her growing insanity. Losing her lover (not his
father) to the war is just about the last straw for her. She spends eight
months locked away and during that time Charlieís life takes huge strides
Unlike many of these pseudo-biographies, there is a reason why Charlie is setting all
of this down. There are many mysteries in his life. Who was his father? Who
financed his education after the piano firm went bust? Would his motherís
malady ever turn up in his own life? Was it safe for him to form emotional
attachments, to have a family? This is what Charlie is trying to work his way
through as he tells us his story, and it seems quite natural that he should
chose this method of setting his troubled life in order.
Charlieís is the narrative voice behind all three generations of the tale, it
seems appropriate that he should be there. We are aware of him putting it all
together for us, making sense of seemingly random events, understanding more of
what is going on than any of the people in his narrative possibly can.
Sometimes this kind of narration gets in the way of the story, but it doesnít
here. I think it helps to have a calmer presence behind the chaos.
glad I finally pulled this off the shelf and took it for a spin. It was a good
ride, one of the last from a author we will miss. Fortunately books outlive