Two people nursing childhood wounds meet via a piano and take a journey toward closure across Death Valley in Chris Cander's "The Weight of a Piano."
Cander grabs the reader in her opening pages: a bravura, thickly detailed account of the creation of a Blüthner piano from wood culled in the forests of Romania, then lovingly aged and shaped in a factory in Leipzig. Blüthner No. 66,825 comes to Katya, a gifted Soviet musician who reluctantly immigrates to California with her husband, Mikhail, who promises that her beloved piano will soon follow. Somehow, decades later in 2012, it has wound up in the possession of Clara, an auto mechanic in Bakersfield who impulsively puts it up for sale after she and the piano are kicked out by her live-in boyfriend, frustrated by her inability to commit. How these stories connect doesn’t become apparent until long after Clara reneges on her sale to photographer Greg Zeldin, realizing she can’t give up the only connection to her parents, who died in a fire when she was 12. Cander expertly parcels out her revelations: Alert readers will likely figure out that Greg is Katya’s son before he admits it on route to Death Valley, but the final plot twist is a satisfying surprise. Clues are carefully planted, however, as Cander builds parallel narratives in alternating chapters. Clara warily joins forces with Greg, allowing him to lease the piano and following him to Death Valley, where he takes a series of photos of the piano perched in locations he once visited with his mother. Flashbacks chronicle Katya’s increasing misery in the U.S., mitigated only temporarily — and ultimately disastrously — when her piano belatedly arrives. As the narratives converge, Greg convinces himself and almost convinces Clara that the piano shows they were meant to be together. Her realization that it’s not so simple prompts an odd but beautiful finale that leads from inside the piano’s consciousness to the summit of Dante’s Peak.
"Piano" is a deftly plotted and well written, a gentle meditation on the healing power of art — and its limitations.
A loving, urgent memorial
Scholastique Mukasonga's "The Barefoot Woman" is a profoundly affecting memoir of a mother lost to ethnic violence.
Mukasonga left her birth country of Rwanda to work in France before the genocide began, but she was well familiar with the events preceding it. As a child, she recounts, her mother informed her that her duty was to cover her body with a colorful pagne when she died: “No one must see a mother’s corpse,” she said portentously. “Otherwise it will follow you, it will chase you … it will haunt you until it’s your turn to die, when you too will need someone to cover your body.” When she was still young, Mukasonga and her family were herded off to an inhospitable region where, she imagines, the Hutu rulers hoped that “the Tutsis of Nyamata would gradually be wiped out by sleeping sickness and famine.” Instead, long before the genocide began, they were steadily victimized: beaten, raped, looted, murdered. The author’s mother, a reader of signs and omens, held drills so that her children could escape: “And so we knew exactly how to scurry into the brambles, how to dive under the dried grasses.” Mukasonga’s account of village life can be charming, as when she writes of the importance of growing sorghum for, among other reasons, making a mild beer that served as a social bond. But then it can become harrowing on the same page, as when she considers whether a man can truly be a man if robbed of his cattle, a visible sign of wealth and status. Finally, in the spasm of civil war and genocide that swept across Rwanda in the early 1990s, her mother and dozens of other family members were killed. The author closes with a haunting vision in which the ghost of a friend asks her whether she has brought "a pagne big enough to cover them all, every one of them.”
"Barefoot" is a loving, urgent memorial to people now “deep in the jumble of some ossuary” who might otherwise be forgotten in time.