THE PIANO MAN’S DAUGHTER is about family and how the curses and blessings of the past are visited on subsequent generations. Charlie Kilworth, the novel’s narrator, does not know who his father is. His own mother, Lily, was born in the same field on the family farm where she was conceived by her mother during an illegitimate union with a touring piano player who is killed shortly thereafter. Lily is also the repository of another Kilworth legacy: She inherits the madness and pyromania that destroyed a distant relative in Ireland.
While she is still living on her family’s prosperous southern Ontario farm, Lily’s afflictions manifest themselves solely as manageable seizures. Later, her mother marries Lily’s dead father’s brother and moves with her to Toronto, and Lily’s fits prove an embarrassment to her rigid but socially ambitious stepfather. Much like her mad progenitor, Lily is then locked in an attic when her parents entertain. It is the first of many confinements she will know, and she responds to them just as John Fagan had done decades before in his dark Dublin garret: she sets them on fire.
Lily is at first packed off to boarding school, then she wins a scholarship to Cambridge. During her sojourn to England, she enters into a number of romantic liaisons, one of which produces Charlie. The last third of the novel details Charlie’s and his mother’s itinerant adventures in Toronto before the insanity of World War II finally provides the occasion for Lily’s undoing. Searching through the iconic contents—an ant entombed in amber, matches, some photographs—of a wicker suitcase she had always carried, Charlie recollects his beautiful, doomed mother and, in the end, finds his own heritage. Canadian novelist Timothy Findley has written a magical, if melancholy, tale about the remembrance of things past.