Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die

 globe & mail, Saturday May 17, 2003

If you believe life is little more than a series of disappointments followed by death, then the 10 stylistically dazzling stories in Harriet Richards’s Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die may well convince you to change your tune.

A Toronto native who migrated west during the sixties, Richards snagged Saskatchewan’s Best First Book Award (1997) with The Lavender Child, a stylistically dazzling novel. Given the exquisite quality of the writing on display in her current work, similar honours would seem to have her name written all over them.

Each entry, carefully crafted and beautifully executed, explores the moods and minds of memorable characters who suffer the slings and sorrows of mundane misfortune. Richards, at her best when she enters psychological terrain, maps psychic contours with chilling accuracy and eerie pulchritude.

Rosa Velos is one such character in a story that itself seems torn in two by ethical ambiguity. Can evil bloom in the mind of an eight-year-old who may or may not be guilty of drowning her best friend? Whose recollections are right? Whose are merely confabulation? It’s a keen distinction the author reluctantly examines.
Effortlessly moving through territory dominated by disquietude and distress in / Can’t See It, Richards creates a luminous portrait of a chain-smoking grandmother. Alma, who refuses to relinquish her daughter’s eight-year-old. “She is my kid,” insists Prue, yet again proclaiming that she, her fiance and her kid will return to Red Deer, where the girl will “go to movies and play in the park and have a dishwasher and a car.” Alma, briefly reflecting that it’s a stupid thing to say (while simultaneously realizing that everything’s becoming stupid, anyway), deadpans: “She’s only eight, Prue. She can’t drive a car.”

It is the collection’s closer, A Wonderful Dancer, that really delivers the knock-out punch. Its stunning economy and crisp austerity rival poetry’s compressed intensity as Richards paints an unforgettably rich portrait imbued with dignity and lyrical grace.

It recalls a love affair between a pair of captivating seniors, viewed through the eyes of the inamorata’s daughter, the self-deprecating Clarice. Early on, Clarice observes that her mother, “a much younger woman than she should have been, “possessed a “sweet kind of vanity which she was very aware of and tried to disguise.” Not surprisingly, among the shadows of this ludic narrative circumscribing love, need and greed, lurks a joy-spoiler non pareil; Magdalen, the daughter of the dapper piano tuner, waiting for her meal-ticket to die.
A piano tuner adjusts the instrument’s strings to ensure it sounds harmonious. The same might be said of Richards’s talent for creating organically unified short fictions of the first order. — Judith Fitzgerald

Planet, The Welsh Internationalist, August/September 2003

There are arresting and dramatic developments in Canadian writer Harriet Richards’ short story collection, Wailing for the Piano Tuner to Die, but the main pleasure lies in the language, which scrupulously avoids cliches while offering continual surprises. Many sentences infuse the striking landscape of the Canadian mid-west and its fanning communities with an undercurrent of almost commonplace cruelty or horror. Casual violence is a staple of childhood — and few contemporary writers have rendered that dimension of human experience more unsettlingly than Richards, as in this sentence from “Rosa Velos”: “But Emily picks up a mouse between her thumb and pointed fingers, her hand delicate, and rolls its head as she would an eraser on the end of a pencil until it pops.”

The ten stories shift from a focus on children in the first half to adults in the second, yet Richards maintains a consistent tone and style throughout, even in stories — such as “Marine and Jonothan, Plus Carmelita’s Journal” — that are experimental in form. When Richards treats adult characters and themes in the last six stories of this collection, the amalgam of beauty and cruelty remains, especially with the arrival of a sexual dimension. Desire prefigures disaster: characters can’t control the sexual urge even as they intellectually register the risks — or the inevitable catastrophes — that follow. Relationships are evoked in the language of battle, of skirmishes and rearguard actions: those that begin well rarely end well. In describing her marriage, the narrator of “Requiem” observes: “I’m trying to persuade myself that 1 married him for the challenge, a gauntlet thrown, a classic match; study the opponent, feint and counter, attack and retreat over and over again. Of course, later on it was a brawl.”

Though Richards’ characters are tuned into contemporary Canadian (or more generally Western) culture, they arc typically products of isolated fanning communities. One unusual aspect of the stories is that they follow characters through many decades — yet while several feel like mini-novels in their chronological scope, they manage not to seem at all thin. Many stories are about loss: the death of a mother, the breakup of relationships. There is a prolusion of damaged characters: Angus (in “Emerald and Angus”) suffers from retardation, a son (in “For a Boy”) has been emotionally abused by his father. Many stories address the ambivalent condition of women motivated by sexual desire but fiercely protective of their autonomy. “Emerald and Angus” and “A Wonderful Dancer” — two stories that feature adult women as main characters — are true masterpieces of short fiction.

While lyrical and affecting, there is nothing precious, nothing sentimental in this collection. It’s edgy fiction grounded in the flat and vast Saskatchewan landscape: the environments are expansive but the stories dig deep. Harriet Richards’ first novel. The Lavender Child, published by Thistledown Press in 1997, received the Saskatchewan Best First Book Award. Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die is an accomplished successor.