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 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