Russell Wangersky – The Glass Harmonica & Whirl Away
A couple of years ago Russell Wangersky’s name was in the news when his collection of short stories Whirl Away was nominated for the Giller Prize. His novel The Glass Harmonica was published in 2010, and now that I’ve read it I am surprised it did not get more attention when it was released. To me it is one of those novels that should sell by word of mouth, from one reader to the next in a steady stream. The short stories are good, I liked every one, but the novel is one of those books that just gets under your skin.
Russell Wangersky imagined a street in St. John’s, Newfoundland lined with clapboard houses, painted as they are, most tall and thin, some quite fine, others not. A street that meanders up and down, the houses filled with an assortment of characters. What goes on behind closed doors? Well, we find out. I suppose it is slightly - or more than slightly – voyeuristic, but the reader will watch these people and their families over thirty some years, as secrets are revealed and lives are lived.
There is a woman who gambles, her husband desperate to preserve the appearance of their lives. There’s a kid who tortures cats and ends up killing someone – senselessly. There’s a petty thief who finds comfort in a jail cell with three meals a day, a warm bed and the company of others.
Some are people who have lived on McKay Street for a very long time, who have known each other since birth, went all through school together. Two men, old now, share a secret - and the wife of one who has a secret of her own. Some better kept that way. But, if you were the parents of a girl who went missing wouldn’t you want to know if she were dead or alive?
There are the old women who watch out the window, seeing who comes and goes from the homes of others. The elderly man with such a persecution complex no one would believe him if he did know the truth about a crime. There are very few incomers, but they too are being watched.
There are those who hardly leave their houses and others desperate to get out of town – out of the province – to the other side of the country. There are some who left but have returned, living again in the houses where they grew up – a comfort or a prison. Renovate or just sell the place as it is and begin a life unburdened by the memories? As older people die their secrets die with them. Perhaps there are clues left but the children do not know to recognize them.
One woman reflects on the husband who left many years earlier – “sometimes people just disappear”. Wasn’t there a man in the news only a few weeks ago who seems to have done just that? We assume not – but only he knows. Another man in this book disappears as well, leaving his younger brother searching the Internet for information about unidentified men found dead - one might be his brother.
An elderly woman remembers a record she had, given to her by her father, “Music for Glass Harmonica”. She thinks about this ethereal music “you see something, hear something else about it, see something else, and all of it gets put together into one unique package in your memory. And then that’s the only way you can tell it. And only you can tell it too.” Russell Wangersky has done just this, created a story, told from the perspective of many very different people, resulting in a novel full of characters and stories that will stay with you for a very long time.