A short novel in the style of Ian McEwan, The Upright Piano Player is the story of one Henry Cage, a man at a crossroads. An elderly executive, he's been pushed out of the company bearing his name; his ex-wife is dying; his children are alienated from him. One night after a party he crosses paths with a very bad man and a series of events unfold that will cause him pain and notoriety. But all this comes before a shocking act of violence narrated at the beginning of the book, involving the tragic death of a child.
The act of violence, its timing and its relation to the other circumstances of Henry's life make up the emotional core of this literary novel. Artful and well-paced, Henry's story unrolls bit by bit; loss and death chase Henry through the streets of London, its cafés and office buildings, and all the way to America. He's attacked and stalked and suffers two heartbreaking deaths. Henry himself is bookish, uptight and not entirely likable, and when presented with alternatives, always seems to make the wrong choice. Abbott, though, always makes the right ones when it comes to his elegant style. Writing about Henry's favorite bookstore, Abbott tells us
The shop seemed to order only books that Henry wanted to read and he quickened his step eager to see what treasures were on the tables. The store was busy and he browsed for half an hour, careful as he moved from one pile of books to another not to hurry the customer next to him. Good manners are a given in bookshops. "I don't suppose you have a copy of..." The tone is invariably considerate. Between a book's covers there may be passion, bile, mayhem, or murder, but in the quiet spaces where it awaits its fate (either acceptance of indifference) all is calm. For Henry, bookshops had always been restorative, and buoyed by his visit he bought Thom Gunn's latest book of poems and left.Such could also be said of Henry's life- that no matter what chaos rains on him or around him, he remains relatively calm himself. Even his ex-wife's funeral is a straightforward affair with little in the way of emotional demonstration, a stark contrast to the violent outbursts committed by and upon him. It's almost as if these outbursts take the place of the stable emotional life of a healthier person. The Upright Piano Player is a melancholy but nevertheless highly accomplished novel (the author's first) that I strongly recommend to readers of literary fiction. It's also a rather quick read, being highly suspenseful despite the author's composed and mature tone. Even if you don't end up loving Henry, you'll care about him enough to want to see how it all turns out, and you'll relish Abbott's beautiful writing along the way.
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.