The Piper's Son
Candlewick Press 2011
Tom is a man floundering. From an erstwhile inseparable family and indomitable group of friends, he finds himself seeking oblivion – something he's been finding pretty successfully for the last year. When a knock on the head unwillingly places him with Georgie, his aunt and working next to some familiar faces, he's forced to confront his recent past, his future and everything he has lost along the way. Georgie, herself, did not expect to find herself pregnant at 42, she certainly didn't expect the father of her unborn child to be an ex of seven years. She didn't expect to find her 21 year old nephew on her doorstep and above all, she never expected to find them at the centre of a family grieving for one of their own and unable to find a way back to each other. Returning to the community and families of Saving Francesca, The Piper's Son follows Tom and Georgie along an intertwining and bumpy road, never hinting at what their end destination may be.
Thomas Finch Mackee is a bit of a knob – he'd be the first to admit it, and the last to care. In fact, when we meet Tom in The Piper's Son he's stopped caring about anything and anyone, including himself. Gone is the exuberant, caring (if somewhat obtuse and tactless) boy that danced with abandon to I'm Your Venus in Saving Francesca. In his place is a young man completely lost to the world. He's treated his friends so badly that he can't see a way back to them and his family are in such a mess that he'd rather avoid contact than witness their pain. So yes, Tom's a dick, but he's got some pretty good reasons to lash out and the more you read, the more you realise that he's a dick with heart. And Tom's heart is, when you glimpse it, full to the brim with feeling. As the story progresses, despite his continual defensiveness there emerges a man whose love for his family and friends is overflowing, fierce and strong – he just needs to learn how to tap into it again. For, more than any character I've read before, home is very much where Tom's heart is.
Georgie is a less accessible character – not only for the reader, but for her own peers and family members. Struggling to hold herself and her family together after the death of her brother, Joe, she's also dealing with a surprise pregnancy – an unborn child that she is struggling to reconcile herself with. In many ways, she is Tom's opposite – she's certainly able to articulate things better, but often chooses to shut down, drawing an uncrossable line between herself and the rest of the world. Her character progression is both subtler and less complete than Tom's but all the more believable for it. The rest of the Finch Mackees are a complex and endlessly readable creation. A family of intelligent, difficult, loud-mouthed extroverts, it is clear instantly how muted they have been by their communal grief. Mourning not only Joe but also a long lost father they are completely undone. The deafening silence of this undoing is witnessed by their friends, who watch helplessly, completely unaware of how to piece this once vibrant family together again. And yes, there are some familiar faces in this group of friends. For those who have read Saving Francesca, many of Tom's school friends appear and are as pivotal to Tom in his story as they were to Francesca in hers.
The Piper's Son is an extraordinarily well written novel. Marchetta's previously seen skill for characterisation and dialogue moves up to a whole new level and I found myself savouring each word and often re-reading passages instantly, struck by the beauty of her writing. Stylistically it probably owes more to Marchetta's tour de force, Jellicoe Road than it's companion novel Saving Francesca with the themes explored being done so through adult eyes. In The Piper's Son, Marchetta skillfully explores the ties that bind us, those of both blood and water and as with Jellicoe Road (and to an extent Saving Francesca) it is her subtle working of group dynamics that turns a simple story of one families grief into an exploration of friendship, fear and love. The community that she has created in The Piper's Son is one of interwoven generations, shared history and huge depth of feeling. She recognises, vitally, that it isn't always necessary to like your family, nor your friends and that sometimes what is lost can never be found, what has been wronged never righted. Yet The Piper's Son isn't depressing, rather it's gloriously vivid, beautifully nuanced, often funny and above all real. Melina Marchetta writes her characters right down in the dirt and trust me when I say you will want to get right down there with them. As with Jellicoe Road (review here) I highly, highly recommend this title – read this, then go out and order everything else that this amazing author has ever written. You will not regret it.