The Piano Girls by Elizabeth Smither
These 20 short stories by Elizabeth Smither, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, are beautifully crafted, not to be rushed but savored. Sentences flow lyrically, words are artfully chosen. They are about ordinary New Zealanders with human foibles that we can relate to.
Food is a recurring theme in her stories. Baking, first published in the prestigious Harvard Review Online is a deliciously witty tale about an older woman who, hoping to temporarily cool the ardor of a new man in her life, mischievously pretends she must busy herself cooking up a storm of home baking for an imaginary school gala when he arrives.
The women in these stories are not strident or outspoken. The flat chested young wife who pins her hopes on a jar of Breast Gro is a far cry from a bra burning feminist. This funny story is told with empathy.
Others are readers and thinkers. One keeps a stack of the latest Murakami, Karl Ove Knausgard and Donna Lyon books beside her bed. Another copies favourite quotes from her reading, the latest one by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, into a big diary she keeps beside her computer. I imagine these are the kind of women Elizabeth Smither knows well as she was a librarian.
Inanimate objects can play an important role too as in two stories about Mothers and daughters. In one she cleverly weaves a tale about a daughter’s marriage around a small cup of gravy. In the other, a half-squeezed tube of scented toothpaste, brought back from a luxurious stay in a Bali resort, says a great deal about an ungrateful daughter.
Elizabeth Smither, in her eighties now, views life through a long lens. This allows her to draw inspiration for her stories from people she has met over several generations. Her stories range from nostalgic memories of being a teenager to ones which could have happened today.
A tale about a tiny old woman called Scottie hearkens back to the sixties when burning incense was a fad. That a group of marijuana smoking flatmates who live next door would adopt her as a pet and part time cook does require a stretch of the imagination. But the deep friendship that grows between her and Rob, one of the young men, who genuinely values her advice, rings true. It is a poignant story in which the frailty which comes with very old age is not glossed over.
The book finishes with what Elizabeth Smither calls Two Sentimental Stories. At the Compassionate Restaurant especially appealed. When Francine Marquand takes over the old Bel Cibo restaurant she is on a mission to create a kitchen which will be the opposite of Gordon Ramsay’s or Marco Pierre White’s. In her kitchen the food should be prepared and served mindfully and with loving kindness, just as it was in a book she has read about monks in a Cistercian abbey.
But will her trio of young staff members, two sullen cooks with pimply faces and a waitress with hair dyed orange and green, who were used to a more rumbustious approach, comply? This sentimental story was so sweet and soporific that I found it just right to turn to at the end of the day. An image of a kinder, gentler world floated before my eyes as I drifted off to sleep. A very satisfying ending.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter
Quentin Wilson Publishing