SOME BOOKS SET IN THE past try to ape the literary conventions of the past; some eschew them altogether. In The Piano Man's Daughter, Timothy Findley goes for the fundamentals. Without any suggestion of mimicry, this splendid novel captures the feel of high Victorian Gothic. It tells a multi-layered, multi-generational story of family madness and mysterious births. Attics. Dark secrets.
Melodrama is badly served by plot summary, which throws into risible relief the coincidences, parallels, and ironic twists which, in the context of the book, can be swallowed whole. Briefly, however, the piano man is Tom Wyatt, and his daughter is Lily, a creative, bright, eccentric woman attracted to music and to fire; the novel tells her story, in fragments, from conception to death. Inevitably, it is also a book about the storyteller, her son Charlie, born in her shadow, who spends much of his life in putting together the pieces of Lily's history and his own. And, because the mystery Charlie has to solve is rooted in the past, it is also the story of Lily's mother Ede, and her love for the piano man, and her marriage to his brother Frederick.
The book spans a neat half-century, from 1889 to 1939, though the last two decades are rather more quickly traversed. This is a very Findleyesque recasting of the past, a world of shabby gentility whose nearest Canadian relative might be Mazo de la Roche's Jalna (for which Findley wrote the TV adaptation). Whatever its affinities, it is a wonderfully idiosyncratic vision, and it enhances and enriches the way Canadians see themselves.
One of the simplest and most effective ways in which Findley evokes the past is by introducing popular songs of the time. I still find myself humming "Shine on, shine on harvest moon, up in the sky...." The reader understands the time and place better for hearing its songs: when you've hummed along with characters, you know a little more of where they come from. Of course the songs also work as reflections of the story, and as part of Lily's very identity:
My mother believed in continuance -- in what she called the songs in the blood; but my definition of those songs is far from benign. No child of mine will ever sing Lily's song. Once -- for all its marvels -- was once too often.
The Piano Man's Daughter is a veritable catalogue of Findley motifs: fire, photos, a search for the past, imprisonment and freedom. One hallmark of the World of Findley, of course, is the presence -- indeed centrality -- of exiles and outcasts, people who are different, peripheral, delicate. That means Lily, of course, but also, memorably, Lizzie Wyatt, her husband's younger brother, one of those "men so special they had been given women's names." Like all Findley's best writing, this book is rhythmic and lyrical; appropriately, it sings. Here is Charlie on his mother:
I was never Lily's keeper. I was only ever her child and, on occasion, her guardian and, on occasion, her victim and, on occasion, her accomplice. But I was never her keeper. The Keeper in Lily's life was fire. Her jail was her illness, and Its key was a box of matches.
Among other things, this is a compellingly readable novel. It opens with a death; and it seems as if each time one mystery is put to bed another springs out. There is a good deal of foreboding. The reader keeps expecting the worst, an expectation that is usually met. The occasions when the clouds clear -- as for example in the lovely moment among her Cambridge friends when Lily declares that she is happy -- feel like those dangerous moments in real life when you know things are going too well, you know you're about to crash.
One way of looking at the novel is to see it as a series of brilliant set-pieces, as if Findley has imagined with incredible vividness some astonishing tableaux, and then created a narrative that makes sense of them. As a result, the reader assembles the novel's fragments as Charlie assembles the fragments of his past: Ede's first view of the piano man, the kitchen-table surgery, Lizzie waltzing Lily down the canvas rollers of the piano factory.
The story opens in a surreal world and slowly comes to clarity, like the stilling of rough waters. For all the dissolution and dispersal of the conclusion, there is hope for renewal and regeneration. The book moves from not knowing into a degree of knowing, from missing persons to found people, from fragments into a kind of wholeness. In a narrative such as this, the great trick is to weave a conclusion that lives up to the promise of the many mysteries that have been unravelling. The conclusion of The Piano Man's Daughter is completely satisfying without being self-evident; like all the best endings, it is also the beginning of another story.