The Upright Piano Player – David Abbott

Well, it seems like if you hanker after some great debut fiction then the list of ‘The Culture Show’s 12 Debut Novelists’ is pretty much the ideal place to go because so far, apart from one which maybe I should try again, every one of them I have tried has been a book I have really enjoyed, or been enthralled with. That includes the latest one I decided to try which was David Abbott’s ‘The Upright Piano Player’, as it shot up the TBR pile after hearing it raved about by Ann Kingman on ‘Books on the Nightstand’ a few weeks ago.

‘The Upright Piano Player’ has possibly one of the most gripping, horrifying and gut wrenching opening chapters I think I have come across in a long time. One that isn’t reflective of the book general style, though that doesn’t mean you will lose interest swiftly from then on, it’s a book that hooks you into someone’s life only rather near the end of the tale instead of the beginning. When we first meet Henry Cage in May 2004, we are taken with him to a funeral, of whose I will not say though you know by the end of the first chapter and it’s rather upsetting, especially as we are lead to the event of the death of said person in a flashback.

“He had chased after them screaming himself, God knows what – not words he thought, just a scream, a never-ending scream. He ran until his knee gave way. They found him crawling along the side of the road.”

Interesting then, and it had me wondering which is always good, why we are then taken back to November 1999. What Abbott does is to get us to know the background to the event that happens. Not in a ‘this is why it happened’ way, though there is some of that in part, rather in a way that we get to know just how fragile Henry’s world is, and indeed the world of those around him, in the five years from that point. There is forced retirement, estranged children and bitter whilst rather balmy ex-wives. Initially you think that Henry Cage has it all, the company, the flashy car, the nice property. As we read on we realise this is a lonely man on the edge of unravelling one that is sparked further by an act of random violence on New Year’s Eve, one which comes to haunt him again and again and leads to an unravelling.

What’s fascinating is how we watch Henry unravel whilst everyone else think things are fine. We see his reaction when he is kicked out of the very company he founded, he takes it gracefully outwardly and then we see him weeping in the toilets when no one else is around. He tells the police he is fine, and then can’t sleep for fear. In fact it’s the one of the master strokes in Abbott’s story, we are often given insights into the person Henry is via other people. We might join them for a chapter at a certain point in their life when Henry may only meet them for the briefest of moments, for example when he takes a chance on Maude Singer when no one else wants to employ her, though saying that she does appear again. I liked this strange style of personal and impersonal moments. I also thought Abbott summed up the ‘London’ attitude of forgetting people the moment they leave a company or the city.

“He’s bored probably – and unhappy, too, I would guess. Have you seen him since he left?”
“Afraid not – miserable people make me miserable too, so I avoid them.”

Things move forward due to his ex-wife, who summons him to her home in Florida. She has a her reasons, and those of course you would have to read the book to discover. It adds a certain twist to the book, another interesting strand and Abbott does do this at regular intervals, lost of things are happening in the background all the time. Are they pointers to what’s to come or merely just how life is? I did find the break up scene between Henry and Nessa rather emotional and added to the turmoil of all that’s to come, has gone, and is going on.

“She left the room on tiptoe, as if in the presence of the sick. She closed the door quietly behind her and he heard the clatter of her accelerated feet on the staircase. She could not wait to be gone. The real nastiness would start later.”

I didn’t think initially I would warm to Henry. I was worried he was going to be the stereotypical late fifties uncaring bastard what-sit and initially I was slightly proved right. He is a little arrogant, but he is also incredibly fragile and a bit of a home body, which is something he and I had in common, along with his love of books (in fact books become a theme). He’s human, he has his foibles yet at the same time he is a man prepared to admit when he’s wrong and fight passionately for what he believes in when he needs too. I enjoyed spending time with him, even if occasionally (after I had finished laughing at something awful he had done) I wanted to tell him to get a grip. He is also rather lonely and rather vulnerable, if also rather difficult. I liked him.

“His suitcase held few clothes, but was heavy with books. His great fear was of being stranded with nothing to read – so along with recent novels, he took bankers – books he knew he would enjoy reading again should the new titles disappoint. Light Years by James Salter always travelled with him and he invariably packed William Maxwell’s The Chateau. Thus insured, even Christmas could be endured.”

So were there any faults to the book? I would say there were two small ones, and yet they are going to sound bonkers because they are also strengths. Abbott creates characters which are fully formed people. So fully formed that sometimes he adds strands to them you want to learn more about, an example – if slightly selfish one – is of his son and daughter-in-laws book shop which I could have read lots and lots more about, he then closes the door on them either for good or for a while. It feels like some of the strands he starts off don’t quite get finished. He also tells the story in a very random order. One minute we are in 2004, then back to 1999 but not following a straight chronological trajectory as we get varying flashbacks along the way. It’s well done, it’s an interesting style, yet I would imagine it could confuse or put people off. For me it worked, I just put the effort in and read a paragraph or two once or twice to place them.

Overall, I really, really liked ‘The Upright Piano Player’. I am quite cross with David Abbott for not writing something sooner, he waited until he retired, but then I wonder if this book is just so good because its been fermenting in his brain for so long? I am hoping that we get another one soon as this is my sort of book, and I wasn’t really expecting it which makes it all the better. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Has anyone else read this novel, if so what did you think? There have been, not by me, some comparisons to Ian McEwan with David Abbott’s debut. I can in part see where those are coming from, mainly in terms of the violent or bizarre moments that change someones life and outlook. If you love McEwan then you will probably love this. Yet if you loathe McEwan don’t avoid reading this book, David Abbott is also an author in his own right and a different one, yet one who definitely deserves to shift as many copies as McEwan’s latest did.


Filed under Books of 2011, David Abbott, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review

21 responses to “The Upright Piano Player – David Abbott

  1. Pingback: Do I Want To Read… Some Debut Novelists | Savidge Reads

  2. Stujallen

    I loved it Simon when I read it ,it reminded me of the st aubyn novel clue to the exit , I love his book love that shines through Henry the visit to sandhoes , all the best stu

    • Ooh interesting comparison with St Aubyn. I’m not sure that I would whole heartedly agree with that… I’ve been dipping in and out of the Some Hope trilogy. I can say I think they are both great authors.

  3. Glad to know you liked this one. I saw it mentioned at Books on the Nightstand too but Marie at The Boston Bibliophile confirmed it for me as a recommended read also just last night. It’s on it’s way from the library and I will reread your review in full after I’ve finished reading it. Thanks for reviewing it.

  4. It sounded great, right up until the point when you compared it to McEwan (who I’m not a big fan of) Now I’m a bit confused about whether or not its for me. I guess I’ll just have to pick a copy up from the library one day and see if it grabs me.

    • I hope that you give this a whirl, if you haven’t already (I’ve been a rubbish commenter of late). I think it’s interesting you don’t like mcEwan Jackie. Which of his have you read?

  5. I’m slightly intrigued by it but I’m really rushing out to get it

    I do like the cover art, I need to find out whose the artist

    • I wasn’t sure about the cover at first but now fully concur with you, I think it’s great, though I am not sure it sums up the book particularly well. The opening chapter still haunts me.

  6. *but I’m not really rushing out to get it

  7. gaskella

    I love it when people get success late in life when they change directions. This book sounds like one I’ll enjoy (I like McEwan generally).

    • I don’t think that I did this book the best service by the McEwan comparison I think there’s just a certain set of twists which make me think of McEwan. If you like McEwan you should like this though. I’ll be interested in the next book from this author.

  8. Carol Wong

    I saw all the five star ratings and wondered if there is someone wrong with me! I am giving up on this book today. I could not get that gruesome scene out of my mind. Then I was tuned off by all the thrid person stuff. But primarily this book makes me feel gloomy! I am quitting on page 70, I cannot take it anymore.

    • Nelda

      I just finished The Upright Piano Player, and I must say, I found it intriguing. Never did figure out the reason for the title; plus, couldn’t decide if he meant the piano was what was upright or if it was the player who was. Hmmm. At any rate, for me, the title was interesting, but had no relevance to the story. The first scene about undid me, and I will never forget it. I agree that the order in which the story was presented was sometimes slightly confusing, but after a few lines, that became clear. I found myself fearing the whole book that he would return to the original tragedy, and as a grandma myself, I’d already cried enough about that…

      • Intriguing, or interestingly intriguing, sums up this book really well. The opening chapter is just gut wrenching but you can’t not read on.

        You’re right about the title too. I know he liked playing the piano but still…

    • I think that I can be quite a fan of gloomy. So maybe thats why I liked this novel so much. The first chapter I just thought was incredible. I have heard ‘Enduring Love’, by McEwan, has a shocking and compelling start like this one.

  9. Bookwomyn

    I just finished this book. Yes, the first chapter was gruesome but life is often that way. Other happenings in the book are also unhappy but I found the book very readable and have recommended it to others. I’d rather read about life as it is than science fiction or murder.

    • I’m not sure that I know of anyone in real life who has been through something like the opening scene, but I know what you mean. I think all fiction has elements of the dark or the bizarre and unreal and this book is immensely readable.

  10. Jim Calandrillo

    What an opening chapter! Mesmerizing. At that point we do not even know the character, yet the author manages to evoke such an incredible response from us. Then comes the bulk of the novel whereby we read of the sad life preceding the final tragedy. All the while we are thinking…and this all came BEFORE the events of the opening chapter. I kept waiting for the author to return to further scenes right after the opening, but then realized that neither I nor Henry could talke any further blows. And yet, the author finds the real and complete person in the midst of all his life’s downturns. So English in the telling

    • I do think this book has one of the most memorable, for good and bad reasons, that I have ever come across. I think there are a good few amazing books to come from Abbott. I sometimes couldn’t believe this was a debut!

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