'Lyrical and affecting, there is nothing precious in this collection.'
WAITING FOR THE PIANO TUNER TO DIE | PLANET, THE WELSH INTERNATIONALIST
There are arresting and dramatic developments in Canadian writer Harriet Richards’ short story collection,Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die, but the main pleasure lies in the language, which scrupulously avoids cliches while offering continual surprises. Many sentences infuse the striking landscape of the Canadian mid-west and its fanning communities with an undercurrent of almost commonplace cruelty or horror. Casual violence is a staple of childhood — and few contemporary writers have rendered that dimension of human experience more unsettlingly than Richards, as in this sentence from “Rosa Velos”: “But Emily picks up a mouse between her thumb and pointed fingers, her hand delicate, and rolls its head as she would an eraser on the end of a pencil until it pops.”
The ten stories shift from a focus on children in the first half to adults in the second, yet Richards maintains a consistent tone and style throughout, even in stories — such as “Marine and Jonothan, Plus Carmelita’s Journal” — that are experimental in form. When Richards treats adult characters and themes in the last six stories of this collection, the amalgam of beauty and cruelty remains, especially with the arrival of a sexual dimension. Desire prefigures disaster: characters can’t control the sexual urge even as they intellectually register the risks — or the inevitable catastrophes — that follow. Relationships are evoked in the language of battle, of skirmishes and rearguard actions: those that begin well rarely end well. In describing her marriage, the narrator of “Requiem” observes: “I’m trying to persuade myself that 1 married him for the challenge, a gauntlet thrown, a classic match; study the opponent, feint and counter, attack and retreat over and over again. Of course, later on it was a brawl.”
Though Richards’ characters are tuned into contemporary Canadian (or more generally Western) culture, they arc typically products of isolated fanning communities. One unusual aspect of the stories is that they follow characters through many decades — yet while several feel like mini-novels in their chronological scope, they manage not to seem at all thin. Many stories are about loss: the death of a mother, the breakup of relationships. There is a prolusion of damaged characters: Angus (in “Emerald and Angus”) suffers from retardation, a son (in “For a Boy”) has been emotionally abused by his father. Many stories address the ambivalent condition of women motivated by sexual desire but fiercely protective of their autonomy. “Emerald and Angus” and “A Wonderful Dancer” — two stories that feature adult women as main characters — are true masterpieces of short fiction.
While lyrical and affecting, there is nothing precious, nothing sentimental in this collection. It’s edgy fiction grounded in the flat and vast Saskatchewan landscape: the environments are expansive but the stories dig deep. Harriet Richards’ first novel. The Lavender Child, published by Thistledown Press in 1997, received the Saskatchewan Best First Book Award. Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die is an accomplished successor.
Waiting For The Piano Tuner To Die | August/September 2003