“Do you have any books you listened to on the Odyssey Award committee that you think I would like?” I asked our teen librarian. She gave me this one. Had I read the back cover first, two years after the unexpected death of a male family member would have sounded really uncomfortably close, given that I started the book exactly two years after my own brother’s unexpected death. I’m glad I went ahead anyway.
The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Read by Michael Finney.
Tom Mackee wakes up in a hospital bed with a huge headache and no memory of getting there. Sitting next to him is his old friend Francesca Spinelli, whom he hasn’t seen in two years and isn’t happy to be seeing now. His Uncle Joe was blown up in the London train bombings of 2005, joining Tom’s grandfather Tom Finch, who died in Vietnam, in the “bodies never returned” club. In the two years since Joe’s death, his family has fallen apart, Tom’s mother leaving Sydney for Brisbane with his little sister Annabelle. Tom stayed to help his father, who was struggling with deep alcohol problems, until his father disappeared, too. Now it’s been a year since anyone in the family has seen the man who was so charismatic in leading local unions that he was called the Piper. Meanwhile, Tom has dropped out of university, stopped seeing his friends, quit their band, and left the girl he loved. He’s been living on the dole with a couple of potheads, using drugs, alcohol and casual sex to numb the pain. But now those roommates have been kicked out of their apartment and thrown his things on the street. Tom has no one to turn to except his Aunt Georgie, his father’s sister. At close to 40, she’s pregnant for the first time by her ex-husband. Though her own life is a bit messy, she agrees to take Tom in only on the condition that he finds a job, so he finds mindless part-time data entry work to appease her. Then, wandering into the Union Bar, where his family has hung out for years, he learns that his former roommates, previous employees there, stole a large amount of money. Something finally snaps, and Tom insists on starting work at the Union to pay back what his former friends stole. But this means working with Francesca and Justine, two of the Five Horsewomen of the Apocalypse who were part of his gang before. Tara Finke, his lost love, is overseas, but even the cook at the Union knows how he broke her heart. Meanwhile, Georgie can neither talk nor speak to her ex, and won’t admit the obvious fact of her pregnancy even to her best friends.
This is marketed as a teen book, though Georgie’s point of view gets nearly equal time with Tom’s, and even Tom is no longer a teenager. The only reason that I can see for this is that Tom’s gang of friends featured in Marchetta’s earlier book, Saving Francesca, which was definitely a teen book. Here, Marchetta does an amazing job looking at the way grief can muck up lives. Both in Tom’s family and his circle of friends, everyone loves one another fiercely, and yet no one has been able to keep things together enough to stay together. It takes a whole bunch of broken people working in their limping way towards healing to start putting things right. Even though Tom is not someone I’d normally identify with beyond this shared grief, Marchetta keeps him a sympathetic character even when he’s acting like a jerk for large portions of the book. I’m very glad to have listened to this, because while I know what Australians sound like in general, it’s difficult for me to keep the voices sounding right in my head when I’m reading silently to myself. Michael Finney does a fine job, reading with just the right tones and managing that difficult task for a male narrator of convincing and distinct female voices as well as male. I’m not usually one for depressing realistic fiction, but I really enjoyed this one, so much that I checked out Saving Francesca right away. The Piper’s Son is sad, funny, beautiful and ultimately heartwarming. You should read it.