Many bookworms I know dread having to answer that well-intended question, “What’s your favorite book?” Although I’m normally a rather indecisive person, I can answer this one with ease: Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son. A long time Marchetta fan, I paid more for shipping than I did for the book, utterly unable to wait for the US release. I ordered it from Australia. Oh, the things we do for love. It was worth it, though. And besides, I personally prefer to have the original version of the book rather than the ones edited to be slightly more understandable to American audiences.
The Piper’s Son is technically a follow-up to one of Marchetta’s earlier books, Saving Francesca, but could easily be read on its own. Its main protagonist, Tom, was somewhere between a supporting and minor character in Saving Francesca. Tom’s family has more or less fallen apart following his Uncle Joe’s death in the 7/7 Tube bombing in London. Tom’s mother has moved to Brisbane with Tom’s little sister, Anabel. Tom’s father has gone who-knows-where, downing whiskey after whiskey to get through the day. And when his flatmates kick him out, Tom has no choice but to move in with his pregnant Aunt Georgie.
Georgie, older sister to Tom’s Uncle Joe, serves as the story’s other protagonist. The story alternates between sections told in Georgie’s and Tom’s points-of-view. In short, everything in both Tom and Georgie’s lives have gone to pieces since his Joe’s death two years ago. I love stories where everything is in shambles, and the course of the book shows the protagonist struggling to set things right again, so this was a book I was naturally drawn towards.
What I find most impressive in this novel and in Marchetta’s writing in general is the abundant presence of complex characters. Everyone in the story from Georgie’s best friend, Lucia, to Tom’s love interest, the “smart, stubborn, ridiculously uncool” Tara Finke, is presented as a three-dimensional, well-developed character. Marchetta’s ability to turn every character into one with unexpected depths is what first drew me to her books in the first place. When I read Saving Francesca in high school, I remember being struck by the idea that every person – even the ones we unthinkingly write off – has so much more to him- or herself than what we see in passing. When Marchetta does use stereotypes, she plays with them rather than letting them serve as the character’s entire identity.
Lastly, I owe Marchetta one more thing – my love of Australian rock musician, Paul Kelly. Paul Kelly and Melina Marchetta are alike; wildly popular in Australia, less so in the States. Throughout The Piper’s Son, frequent references to Paul Kelly’s music are made. In some ways It’s the music Tom grew up on, when his family was still a cohesive unit. He wishes his father would reunite his Mom, like in characters in a Paul Kelly song. His band covers a Paul Kelly song. Most heartbreaking, there’s the family story of how when Uncle Joe was in college – or rather, “uni” – he and his friends ending up at the police station for getting drunk and stealing a street sign. While there, Joe called Tom’s father and started singing Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy,” changing the lyrics to fit Tom’s family.
One of my favorite lines from the novel is Joe’s description of the song to Tom: “It’s a love story, Tommy . . . It’s a love story between Dan and Joe and every member of their family.” That sums up the heart of The Piper’s Son – a love story between Tom and every member of his family.