- Tom, Tom, he was a piper’s son,
- He learned to play when he was young.
- And all the tune that he could play
- Was over the hills and far away
- (Nursery Rhyme; this text from Wikipedia)
I was on the 2009 Printz Committee. Jellicoe Road was the book that knocked my socks off. On all five reads.
So the first time I read The Piper’s Son, and I found the Easter egg reference to some of the Jellicoe crew, I burst into tears. It was like finding long lost friends again. I know they are just words on a page, but I believe in them so completely that I would not be surprised to suddenly meet one of these people in real life.
(And then, after I finished Piper’s Son, I read Saving Francesca and Jellicoe AGAIN. Because I missed the characters so much. And also I wanted to see Ben again after having seen him through Justine’s eyes, because Justine’s Ben is not the same as Taylor’s Ben, because it turns out Ben grew up very nicely.)
I do think that what Marchetta has done with those three books and the way the characters overlap and intersect is genius. Each book stands alone (I remembered pretty much nothing of Francesca when I read Piper, and was surprised when I went back to see the younger Tom, who is so different from the Tom now), but the way they fit together adds an element of realism if you’ve read all of them.
But of course, that’s inadmissible evidence for greatness in a court of Printz.
So on to the book at hand, looked at entirely on its own merits and without regard for the larger world it inhabits.
I’m noticing a trend in my top picks for the year. Broken people. Broken damaged people pushing through pain into some sort of hopeful (but potentially still messy and heart-breaking and damaged) future. Briony in Chime fits this; Cam in The Returning (who is even literally broken); even Sarah’s top pick so far (Conor in A Monster Calls) fits the mold. Tom Mackee might not be the most damaged of the year’s pool of broken people, but his damage is in many ways more familiar. Tom is lost and directionless, his family is a mess, and it all goes back to his uncle’s death in a terror bombing. Tom is damaged by something we in the real world get.
The tricky part, of course, is that this is not just Tom’s story.
And while Tom is more-or-less a YA (less, really–he’s 20 or 21, and his friends are either in University or past it), the other main character is Tom’s 42-year-old aunt Georgie, who is not adolescent at all (even if she is accidentally pregnant out of wedlock or even a relationship).
But maybe it doesn’t matter, because maybe this isn’t actually about Tom and his grief, or Tom and the relationship he almost had with Tara Finke, right before his uncle’s death. Maybe this isn’t about Georgie and her broken relationship and her pregnancy and her constant fight against debilitating depression, nor about any of the rest of the Finch-Mackee clan, nor Tom’s wonderful friends who love him and support even though he’s pushed them away for the last two years: “I know you’re sad, Tom. But sometimes you’re so mean that I wonder why any of us bother.”
Maybe what this book is about is family. Blood family and friend family. Lost family and found family–a motif made clear by the minor narrative thread about the remains of Tom’s paternal grandfather, dead in Vietnam and now, 42 years later, maybe about to come home.
And if there is one thing Marchetta really does better than any other writer I can think of, it’s family. Messy, textured, living breathing family, brought gloriously to life until you feel like you know them all.
Ultimately, that’s what makes this something special: the nuances of daily life, the small graces and small anguishes, the people so real they might be just around the corner.
Although Tom and to a slightly lesser degree Georgie stand at the center, the overall effect is often as much ensemble as leads and supporting actors. I suspect some of this has to do with the fact that Marchetta has written about many of the supporting characters already: they have a history and backstory that we only see in pieces here but which lend verisimilitude to every action and thought.
So that’s the exemplary, but it’s not the whole story.
What isn’t done as well here? The world. On the one hand, it feels real. Reading The Piper’s Son, I felt like I had wandered into someone’s life rather than someone’s novel. That’s pretty powerful stuff. But that realism was sometimes at the expense of my understanding of the world–some of the background union stuff that helps shade characters like Tom’s dad or Sam? Yeah, couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I’m not sure if that’s a USian/Autralian thing. I’m a union member, married to a former Dom-like organizer/negotiator, so I thought I had these things down, but I don’t know all that much about Australia. So it might be an actual writing flaw or it might be a failure of translation, so to speak, but it felt confusing, and in a novel where character is so important, impenetrable motivations are problematic indeed.
Also a little clumsy are some of the references to Tom Finch, the one lost in Vietnam (I really want to look at this and Ants in close comparison given that Vietnam/missing grandfather thread that runs through both). I love the way the absence of a loved one (the dead grandfather and uncle; Tom’s absentee dad and far away mother and sister; old friends Tara Finke in East Timor, Will in wherever he is, and Jimmy MIA) shapes everyone, not just Tom, but sometimes it feels a little heavy handed. The grandfather’s body subplot is the least well-meshed of the missing persons stories and so it calls attention to the occasionally less-than-deft touch elsewhere as well.
Less relevant to a conversation about quality but something I’m wondering about is potential appeal: I really like Georgie and I found her story compelling, but she moves the focus even more to adulthood and adult concerns. I think this might be an adult book even more than the other why-was-it-pubbed-YA titles I’ve seen this year (starting with Mal Peet’s Life). And getting back to the writing, I wonder if the dual narration is really effective at conveying the story. Do we need Georgie? And if not, why is she there?
Serious contender? It’s hard to tell. It’s not as smooth as some of the books, but it’s a bit more approachable–no fantasy, no potentially off-putting voice, great characters, and even the ages make sense (see Ants) since the youth of Tom’s grandparents and parents is in fact part of their story. And Marchetta has taken the gold once before, which probably guarantees a close look from the committee for this one. But ultimately, I’m betting this doesn’t make the final five.
Pub details: Candlewick March 2011. Reviewed from ARC (because the final copy was too heavy to carry).