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The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka

The Piano Maker

by Kurt Palka

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Helene moves to Saint Homais to make a fresh start, but her past catches up with her and she is arrested to face trial a second time for the murder of her former business partner Nathan. The narrative switches between the present and the telling of Helene's childhood and experiences during the First World War up to her dealings with Nathan. Then, once the trial begins, it switches between the present and her retellings the events leading to Nathan's death. I found this frustrating after a while; it was obvious that something terrible happened, but the teasing as to what exactly it was went on too long for me.

My other problem with this novel was the distance I felt from all the characters, even Helene. She was an interesting protagonist, driven more than I had initially expected SPOILERS by a desire for money. I wanted her to ditch Nathan the moment he had repaid his debt to her. She closed her mind to the fact that Nathan's dealings were morally (and/or legally) dubious and that even his transporting of her wood to Canada during the war was illegal. This did indeed lead fairly directly to the disaster that befell them, but this was not presented as a moral consequence. ( )
  pgchuis | Oct 12, 2016 |
Kurt Palka draws a tight, intriguing tale of mercy and forgiveness in this unforgettable story, The Piano Maker.

Set during WWII and subsequent decades, the reader follows the unfolding saga of Helene, a piano maker from France, who through a series of betrayals finds herself marooned in Canada, only to set out upon an epic and tragic journey that changes her life forever.

Palka writes with great authority, sliding technical and environmental detail seamlessly into the weave of the story. The characters are rich, never cardboard, always fully realized. The plot moves along at a brisk pace. And amid all this he deals with some controversial and sensitive subjects with the utmost delicacy, presenting a balanced and nuanced argument and tale.

It is not often I highly recommend a novel. This one I do. ( )
  fiverivers | Sep 14, 2016 |
An easy read, with likeable characters and engaging plot, with fair to good writing, only really lacking is depth and passion. ( )
  charlie68 | Mar 26, 2016 |
In the 1930s, Hélène Giroux arrives on the French Shore in Nova Scotia. She becomes the pianist and choirmaster of the church in St. Homais. Her integration into the life of the village is interspersed with flashbacks to her past: her family’s piano factory in France pre-WWI, the effects of the Great War on her and her family, her immigration to Canada, and her involvement with Nathan Homewood who finds and sells valuable artifacts. From the beginning it is clear that Hélène has a dark secret in her past, a secret which she ends up having to confront in a very public way.

I love novels with strong female characters. And Hélène is certainly resilient and resourceful and stoic. Unfortunately, I sometimes found her just too adept to be believable. She is skilled at playing, tuning, and building pianos, so I was impressed. But then she is able to effortlessly master commanding a dog sled team, so much so that she is told by a guide that “’You are good with the dogs. They like and respect you. I’ve seen that only once before.’” Her being hired as part of a Canadian entourage which is touring Europe to promote Canada to potential immigrants seems incredible since she hasn’t ever been to Canada. Surely Canada had some accomplished pianists who could have represented their country abroad!

The novel starts slowly. It is only about half way through that I became more engaged. What bothered me, however, is that information is constantly being withheld. That is a cheap way to build suspense. For example, there is a re-trial because of some new evidence, but the reader is not given any specifics of the case or that evidence. This vagueness becomes annoying, and the support the defendant receives from so many people when they know virtually nothing about the case stretches credulity.

It takes a while to become accustomed to the style. To say the prose is straightforward and restrained would almost be an understatement. Anyone reading the book aloud would read it in a monotone. People speak as though some “thing that was in the room right now might break.” The style is appropriate to the muted emotions that pervade. The only person who seems to possess passion is the assistant Crown attorney when she is cross-examining the defendant.

The book is not overly long, yet there are events which serve little purpose. The assistant Crown attorney pushes the judge to let her introduce the new evidence in the case, but then she insists on asking questions and bringing in her first expert witness – none of this questioning advances her case in the least. Likewise, the arrival of Hélène’s daughter seems irrelevant. She arrives and then shortly afterwards returns to London. Claire spends only one night at her mothers, and there are no mother-daughter conversations that address the serious issues faced by Hélène. Characters appear and then disappear; this is the case with Lady Ashley. And what is the point of insisting on Hélène’s going to confession when she insists that she does not believe in the sacrament? The priest advocates hypocrisy?

This is an easy read and so useful for a leisurely afternoon.

Please check out my reader's blog (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
2 vote Schatje | Jan 25, 2016 |
Showing 4 of 4
The Piano Maker is a strange book that never stops feeling like it’s written by someone making his best guess at what human behaviour and discourse look and sound like; even when ostensibly set in motion through Hélène and Nathan’s world travels, it remains static....grandiose but hollow, with only the merest of flesh clinging to it.
Beautifully crafted, suspenseful and rich in the historical detail Palka’s readers know and love him for, this is the perfect book to get snowed in with.
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For Heather And for Melanie and Christina and Aviana and Annie
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On the last stretch through the coastal forest, the trees stood so close together that hardly any light showed between them.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0771071280, Paperback)

The suspenseful, emotionally resonant, and utterly compelling story of what brings an enigmatic French woman to a small Canadian town in the 1930s, a woman who has found depths of strength in dark times and comes to discover sanctuary at last. For readers of The Imposter Bride, The Cellist of Sarajevo, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, and The Red Violin.

     Helene Giroux arrives alone in St. Homais on a winter day. She wears good city clothes and drives an elegant car, and everything she owns is in a small trunk in the back seat. In the local church she finds a fine old piano, a Molnar, and she knows just how fine it is, for her family had manufactured these pianos before the Great War. Then her mother's death and war forces her to abandon her former life.
     The story moves back and forth in time as Helene, settling into a simple life, playing the piano for church choir, recalls the extraordinary events that brought her to this place. They include the early loss of her soldier husband and the reappearance of an old suitor who rescues her and her daughter, when she is most desperate; the journeys that very few women of her time could even imagine, into the forests of Indochina in search of ancient treasures and finally, and fatefully, to the Canadian north. When the town policeman confronts her, past and present suddenly converge and she must face an episode that she had thought had been left behind forever.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 25 Dec 2015 09:14:46 -0500)

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