In 2019, Stephen Downes was awarded a PhD in creative writing from Monash, its major part was what he describes on his website as a “prototype” of this novel. The Hands of Pianists is, as well as much else, concerned with the early deaths – at 31 – of three almost forgotten yet once internationally-famous pianists. They were an Australian, Noel Mewton-Wood, who died by his own hand after drinking prussic acid; an American, William Kapell, was killed in a plane crash on returning to San Francisco from an Australian tour; and New Zealander Richard Farrell died in a car accident in Sussex in the south of England.

The Hands of Pianists

The novel’s narrator has become handily convinced that their deaths were caused by the piano. He, described as a “neurotic freelance journalist”, is suffering guilt not only for accidentally severing some of his sister’s fingers, but also because she had been on the verge of a piano career and then killed herself.

To be fair, one can see connections here – if not to the severed fingers, which could not be saved – at least to some credible notion of cause and effect. The three men: not so much. It is drawing a long bow – or perhaps a 108-key Stuart grand – to link them. But no matter, he goes for it anyway.

Downes’ narrative is a gadfly series of leaps and bounds through time, space, geography and the world of concert pianism. It is interrupted here and there by a series of poorly reproduced and otherwise very ordinary black and white snaps and they, along with a contrarian attitude to denoting dialogue, make for an occasionally puzzling reading experience. Nevertheless, the idea of the grand piano as homicidal is a novelty and Downes pushes it as far as it will go, and then some more.

The Hands of Pianists
By Stephen Downes
Fomite Press, Vermont USA, PB, $24.95 ebook $8.95
ISBN 9781947917736

Available from Booktopia and Apple Books

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