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Heavy piano lifts the weight of life
WHAT leads an East Coast photographer, Greg, and a West Coast mechanic, Clara, previously strangers to one another, to take a Bluthner piano, made in Russia from Romanian wood over one hundred years before, on a tour of Death Valley National Park in California? Without giving away too much of the plot of Chris Cander’s new novel, these are two escapees from intertwined childhoods mangled by grief and loss, whose lives have been indelibly marked by this same talismanic piano. It sounds implausible — and to a degree it is — but Cander makes the story work, in part by not rushing at it too fast. The Weight of a Piano is a slow burner for much its duration.
The danger of a slow burner, of course, is that the flame will actually go out. Cander avoids this fate through the stealthy unfolding of an intriguing central premise and through characters who have enough of the sympathetic and the unexpected to keep the reader’s interest warm.
The action shifts backwards and forwards in time, and to and from America and eastern Europe, allowing the reader the satisfaction of seeing puzzle pieces snapping into place. Equally, not many novels linger as long on the inner workings of cars and pianos as this one does, but this adds to its attraction, giving it a real world heft, tethering the story to lives of craft and graft.
Cander has a way also with luminous metaphors and similes that bring an occasional shimmer to her conventional prose, while also helping us enter deeper into the emotional lives of her characters.
The tension between a married couple on the verge of breaking up is felt by their daughter, the 12year old Clara, to be “dense and sticky”, returning to the family home “like a spider web that had been spun in the night”. As an adult, Clara would watch the last light draining behind the mountains, feeling the sun was “dragging part of her with it below the horizon”: the “vigilant part” that usually protected her from feelings she didn’t wish to acknowledge.
This also is a novel that reverberates with the pain of exile, suffered by Greg’s mother. Even though her exile is from the fear and squalor of Brezhnev’s Russia, her attachment to her family and culture do not dissolve under the blazing Californian sun.
The Weight of a Piano also squares up to the challenge of capturing in words the nature of music, especially classical music, and the effect it has on those who play and listen, on the mind and the soul.
As is so often the case, the attempt is ultimately doomed; but you will not put this book down without wishing to go off and listen to the Prelude no 14 in E-flat minor by the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.
The flaws in The Weight of the Piano are mainly small ones: the dialogue in the Soviet chapters, for instance, is sometimes saddled with clunky expositions of the dilemmas that bore down on artists. Having said that there are some telling touches to evoke the desperation of this period, like the character already on a downward spiral who spends his evenings brooding in a Leningrad restaurant where a bartender he’d befriended, a fellow Jew, lets him finish the drinks of paying customers after they had left.
More significant, though, is the feeling that the writing falters a little when approaching the crest of one of the novel’s emotional crescendos. For this reader, at least, a protective screen of sentiment (edging towards sentimentalism) seems to descend in order to bring order to chaos, particularly the chaos of suicide.
The climax of The Weight of the Piano releases the main protagonists, and Clara above all, to a much delayed shot at true happiness that we are encouraged to feel will succeed.
You want to wish them well, and it is this final tenderness the reader feels towards her characters that is probably Chris Cander’s principal achievement.