Book blurb: The Piper’s Son – Melina Marchetta

The Piper’s Son is a sequel-ish to Saving Francesca.  I say “ish” because it’s not about Francesca, but another member of her group of friends at high school, and is set some five years later.  Set again in Sydney, Thomas Finch Mackee – who seemed the archetypal yob but with hidden sensitivity in Saving Francesca, has lost touch with his friends and family in the last couple of years, and has pretty much lost the plot.  He spends his days stoned out of his mind, deliberately cut off from family, friends and the world except for his love of music. 

What happened to Tom to send him off the rails and basically treat his friends like shit gradually unfolds and is explained, in much the same way as Taylor’s story in On The Jellicoe Road.

As with Marchetta’s other books, I was totally drawn in and became emotionally involved with the characters and the story.  Personally I think this is Marchetta’s best yet; perhaps because the kids are older, have finished or are finishing uni studies, so naturally their world view has changed and the relationships more complex and their concerns more global than the suburbs of Sydney.

There are three particularly fascinating elements to The Piper’s Son;  Tom’s journey back to the real world and reconnecting with family and friends; the different point of view of the group from Saving Francesca (being Tom’s); and the portrayal of the relationships and connections of Tom’s family, and the tragedy that tore them apart.

Tom is at first a rather unsympathetic character, and if you are familiar with Saving Francesca you will be shocked and saddened at the changes in him, and the fact that he is now separated and disenchanted from that group who seemed to have a deep lasting attachment (Marchetta seems to have a “thing” about teens at high school developing these life-long friendships; it’s something that bugs me but I can manage to get past).  It is revealed that he dumped Tara suddenly, very soon after they’d finally got together, and that he’d also disengaged from the group – and the world – at the same time. 

Tom begins working at the local pub and old hang-out, the Union, owned by Justine’s uncle and where she studies and Francesca works.  He slowly, carefully begins to wind himself back into the web of friendship and relationship with Francesca, Justine, and the others.  He also connects again with Tara Finke, via email and phone, who is now working in East Timor as part of her studies, and rekindles their romance. 

What I found most engaging about The Piper’s Son was the change in Point Of View.  Saving Francesca is of course all from Francesca’s outlook, what she was going through at the time, and how she viewed herself, her new friends and her family.  Tom of course views things completely differently; not just Francesca and her personality and growth, but Justine and also Will (Francesca’s boyfriend).

Francesca is actually revealed as being outgoing, a bit of a show-off, a talented singer and musician but with occasional plunges into depression.  Justine is the most secure and grounded of the group, while in Saving Francesca she seemed the least colourful and interesting.  Will – who Francesca saw / sees as The One and therefore everything about him is amazing – is viewed by Tom as hostile, introverted, emotionally withdrawn and defensive.  Part of this is actually Will’s jealousy of Tom, being Francesca’s friend and having much more in common with her than Will, through their love of music and performing together as a band. 

The third element of The Piper’s Son is Tom’s relationship with his family.  The family has always been exceptionally close, but the horrific death of Tom’s Uncle Joe in the London Underground bombing in 2005 and the ensuing ripple-effect from the tragedy has torn the family apart in various ways.  Tom’s dad, who he has always idolised, has become an alcoholic and disappeared, his mother and younger sister have moved away to Brisbane, and Tom has been left, bereft yet detached from his family by choice, for the past two years. 

Tom comes to live with his pregnant not-quite-single Aunt Georgie (it’s complicated but a lovely portrayal of modern complex relationships!), and as with his friends, he pulls together the ties with his father, mother and grandparents.  They reconnect and come together as a family again, ironically – given that a tragic death had blasted the family apart – through the return of the body of Tom Finch, Tom’s grandfather, who was killed and left behind in the Vietnam War.  It’s a very tangible picture of a very real and mostly lovable family, with all it’s baggage and unsaid words and old wounds.

The one slightly bum note (a good analogy in a book so wrapped around music and its ability to connect people) was the “cute” non-relationship between Justine, and Ben from On The Jellicoe Road.  I know authors like to link minor characters between books, and I would have otherwise enjoyed the nod to On The Jellicoe Road but the way it panned out felt incredibly contrived.

As with On The Jellicoe Road, Marchetta shows not tells what her characters feel, and how they are viewed by others.  For example, Tom’s appearance is never described yet from what is said / unsaid he’s pretty good looking.  Despite his initial branding as a yob he is actually very sensitive, mature, kind, a fantastic big brother to his sister Annabelle who he adores, and much loved by all his family and friends, with an ability – a gift, really – for making people happy and comfortable.

I loved this book, and as I only occasionally do with books I love (eg, The Book Thief), when I finished I went straight back to the beginning and started re-reading.  I adored Tom and his relationships with the girls, Will, and especially with Tara; that felt so real and beautiful and poignant, maybe because I’ve done the Long Distance Thing too!


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