I 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.
We 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.
She 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 towards normality.
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.
While 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.
Iím 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 their creators.