The Piano Girls by Elizabeth Smither (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021), 246pp, $35
Elizabeth Smither’s collection of short stories, The Piano Girls, is the latest addition to a list of publications any writer might envy that includes six novels and eighteen collections of poetry, as well as glittering prizes like the 2002 Te Mata Poet Laureate, the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008 and the Ockham’s Poetry Award in 2018. This collection suggests that Smither is not done yet. Its twenty stories examine the lives of girls and women, from adolescent angst and ambition to the renegotiations and relinquishments of later life.
In each life stage the female body looms large as the domain through which the self is made (or re-made) by bringing a world of possibility within touching distance, or baffling us with the betrayals of imperfection or infirmity. In ‘The House of Skin’, a nasty case of scabies sparks a meditation on self-control and resignation into which fevered fantasies intrude as the disease anthropomorphises as the Queen of Scabies, ruling mercilessly over the suffering subject. The inflamed and flaking skin exposes a self divided between surface and depth, pessimism and optimism. ‘Of course in the end I recovered,’ the first-person narrator drily concludes, although the process described would try the patience of a saint. Months spent in recovery allow
so many variations and change of pace … moods that are noble or petulant, often within the same hour; self-loathing and moments of hesitant self-praise. How hard it is to keep control of something we can barely understand.
As an exploration of embodied experience—the constant struggle between mind, imagination and emotions, encased within flesh that is never beyond scrutiny and always clamouring for attention—‘The House of Skin’ is both fitting metaphor for, and encapsulation of, the vicissitudes of female experience explored throughout The Piano Girls.
Materiality in forms other than the body is also a recurring motif in these stories, which depict a world of gifted casseroles and objects freighted with half-buried resentments, desires or other difficult emotions. The toothpaste of reconciliation. The rainbow cake of thwarted seduction in ‘Baking Night’. Ambivalence around acts of giving is played out across multiple stories, with an almost anthropological eye for the nuance of how relationships are variously enriched or deflected through the exchange of objects. Mostly it is women who give of themselves through objects, though one notable exception in ‘Phrases’ occurs when a male poet performs a weekly ritual with his coffee grinder for his Sunday brunch guests—and turns out to be motivated by anything but generosity or self-effacement. In general, the thankless tasks of mothers, waitresses, daughters and friends speak of lives constrained—or contained—by lessons imbibed in youth about what is permitted to seek, what may be taken and what must be endured.
These stories are sometimes explicitly set in a past of serge gymslips where even the brightest girls must choose between nursing or teaching; university is usually a means to an end, and that end is marriage and children. In ‘The Soul of Kate’, the gifted Kate may avoid such a fate, rising in diplomatic circles as far as a woman can, but despite her far-flung postings she remains in essence the unworldly schoolgirl who had fascinated the narrator (turned secretary) since school days. In general, though, time and place are rarely specified in stories where phones are replaced in their cradles, beds are turned down before retiring for the evening and movie times are found in the newspaper. The inescapability of bittersweet memories and the weight of convention, even in the conduct of love affairs, gives these stories something of the feel of Elizabeth Bowen’s short fiction, but with melancholy replacing the menace that often haunts Bowen’s stories, as if the general tenor of women’s lives has remained largely unchanged for half a century or more.
While individual stories gesture to a wider world—protagonists travel to London and unspecified foreign cities and teachers are transplanted to provincial New Zealand from elsewhere—the studied focus on everyday life makes their settings secondary to the dynamics of intimate relationships and interior life. This is where life’s true drama lies, The Piano Girls implies, and where ample material might be found if only sufficient time and compassion were given over to observe and interrogate the ordinary dilemmas and delights that consume us. The exception here is ‘The Shrine of St Anne’, which takes place in Kuala Lumpur and strikes a discordant note for being the only story to explicitly include non-white characters in the form of the embassy’s chauffeur and his wife. In this story Smither’s technique of shifting point-of-view from character to character is less effective and threatens to perpetuate a stereotype of servitude and submission in the characters of Samir and Padmini, who never come convincingly to life on the page.
The Piano Girls squarely belongs, though, to the sisters, wives, mothers and daughters who dominate every story. Men—whether husbands, fathers, lovers or chauffeurs—are mostly bystanders or bit-players.
Shifting point-of-view between female characters is more successfully deployed in stories such as ‘The Piano Girls’ and ‘Gravy’. Here, the relationships between a trio of sisters, or a mother and daughter, are refracted so that the reader sees the complex and organic process of familial intimacy over time, the shifts by which rivals become allies. Tension is replaced by rapprochement; snarkiness gives way to sympathy or vice versa. So many variations and changes of pace emerge: a thoughtless impulse or a deliberate gesture is able to transform reality in an instant, upsetting a pattern that has prevailed for years or casting it in a new light so that, either way, life as usual cannot be resumed. And yet it goes on.
Stories about sexual relationships between men and women tend to depict courtship as conquest. Lovers remain opaque to each other, so much unspoken despite the façade of intimacy; conversation—when it does take place—is at cross-purposes. Smither once observed in an interview, ‘Some of the writers I admire most write dialogue that resembles sword fighting.’1 Many of the stories in The Piano Girls seem to implement this strategy. Men and women find little common ground, not simply because conversation easily gives way to argument but because they do not seem to speak the same language. In ‘The Hotel’, for instance, when William tells Rosie, ‘There’s something I want to say. Not tonight. In the morning, before we leave,’ Rosie’s expectation that it will be something good makes plain the gulf between the pair. Where words fail, food and sex become the currencies through which liaisons are transacted, sometimes as false equivalences as in ‘Baking Night’, ‘Fire Lady’ and ‘The Hotel’, serving as attempts to find and express love without undue loss. Such attempts founder more often than not and, overall, women seem to find little comfort in these relationships, whether they endure or not.
But if food is a recurring presence through many stories, as well as providing ritualised settings in which the dynamics of relationships are thrown into sharp relief (encompassing everything from the shared comfort of a poached egg on honeyed toast in ‘Scottie’ to the fraught negotiations of splitting the bill at group dinners in ‘Money’), music is similarly endowed with symbolic significance in The Piano Girls, as the title suggests. Again and again, music provides a touchstone for characters and their inner lives—or lack thereof. The husband of one of the piano girls protests, ‘I’ve had all the music I can take,’ signalling his alienation from the enrichment and emotional entanglements that a lifetime of music has given to the three sisters who commemorate their mother’s death each year with a shared recital (and feast).
The opening story, ‘The Ten Conductors’, sets the tone here, littered as it is with references to pieces of music and famous conductors that could deter readers unversed in such things. Perhaps it is also staking a claim for the kind of shared knowledge that Smither assumes from her readers. A similar strategy is at play in ‘The Piano Girls’, where the three sisters’ differing styles of playing and musical preferences continue to shape the rivalries between them, while at the same time providing a reassuring continuity that seems to transcend the disappointments of their respective marriages. This title story ends in an almost Chekhovian garden scene in which the sisters find traces of the past coexisting with new life when they discover their mother’s favourite rhododendron blazing with blooms long after her death. ‘A message,’ one of the sisters says, perhaps needlessly; but connection between women, however flawed, seems the most enduring source of hope offered to the piano girls.
WENDY PARKINS is the author of Every morning, so far, I’m alive: A memoir (Otago University Press, 2019).