” But this present sadness was different—different, too, from the misery of sickness. Tom had seen Hal passive and bewildered by fever; had lain with him throughout the night, gratuitously inhaling the vapor rub on his son’s pillow. These things he had know, and known how to handle, but what ailed his son now was loss and he did not know how to help. ” (Ch.40, p.224)
The style and tone of Abbott’s debut—the menace simmering beneath the calm of his prose, the story contemplative of life’s caprice, are reminiscent of Ian McEwan, but with more plumbing depths. The book opens with the grisly accidental death of an 8-year-old child, whose foot had been caught up in the slack of the seat belt during a mad rush of a car theft. The tragedy throws a heavy weight across the book that never lifts. The victim is the grandson of the novel’s protagonist, Henry Cage, whose retirement from a successful career in business consulting does not bring him the peace and quiet naturally associated to it.
Henry told himself he was wistful rather than sad. He listened to rainy afternoon jazz and the slow movements of symphonies. The empty days felt like the end of a love affair . . . Though he no longer had an office to go to, he decided to follow the same early morning schedule. His breakfast companion had always been a book and for the most part he did read—though he also used the book as camouflage, turning the unread pages at suitable intervals as he listened in to neighboring tables. (Ch.3, p.36)
The book does not make a full circle back to the child’s death, but retreats back 6 years in time to when Henry decided to retire. His well-ordered life begins to unravel in fragments: he has a run-in with a thug on millennium night, who then stalks him; he reconciles with his son and discovers that his ex-wofe, whom he divorced because of her affair, is terminally ill with cancer. These unexpected events don’t merely overtake him, they somehow take him over, forcing him to examine the decisions he had made in his life. The sudden change in time and perspective of the narrative can be a challenge. You will have a vignette of Henry’s marriage to Nessa (who to me is a far more interesting character that needs to be written in more depth) and suddenly the narrative will pan over to what is not immediately known Henry’s assailant who punctures nails into a dog’s skull. Once you get used to this anachronism in style, you will appreciate the delicate touch with which Abbott slowly works over the frayed ends of Henry’s broken relationships.
He sat on the side of the bed as fear took control of his body. He was familiar with the notion of shaking with fright . . . He was in the grip of an epileptic fear. For twenty minutes his apprehension was tangible—convulsive shivers and chattering teeth seemingly a biological necessity. (Ch.32, p.188)
The Upright Piano Player is a satisfactory debut. It’s an acutely observed novel about how we are at the mercy of life’s caprice regardless of how fortified we are. The book is painfully memorable in the way Abbott orders the events. Smoothed by the growing affinity between Henry and his grandson, their bond also makes the book’s grisly prologue all the more wrenching.
264 pp. Anchor Books. Paper. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]