Guest review by Hilary Haworth
Lifting the lid on the intrigue and intense rivalries of the concert artist’s world, That Iron String unearths shocking violence with quite clinical detachment, in a way that endures the story will live with the reader for some time after the turning of the final page.
Two healthy baby boys are discovered, together with three corpses, on an abandoned boat off the north shore of Long Island. Port and Boston are raised by those presumed to be family in separate houses on the same street, both become accomplished pianists but Port, our narrator, stays local while his cousin takes to the road on the competition circuit. After ten years of silence, Boston’s piano arrives, then several letters from him, which the family inexplicably leave unopened. When he finally puts in an appearance in person, it is with a train of notoriety – disastrous competitions, a public seemingly turning against him, bizarre accidents befalling those close to him…
As a core fan of the crime fiction genre, with a great interest in the unusual and intriguing world of competitive pianism, I really should have loved this novel.
However, it is peppered with structural and technical flaws that ultimately make Jack Kohl’s This Iron String an unsatisfactory read.
From the brief synopsis above, one might expect an atmosphere of menace and mystery to build from the start. But Kohl makes such efforts to avoid sensationalism that his novel is simply too clean and quiet to successfully engage our curiosity. It is like a pianist misjudging an opening pianissimo, making a sound too shy to draw us in. This reticence lasts well into the second half of the novel.
Port is also highly proprietorial about his own narrative. He hands out those details he thinks we warrant knowing in miserly portions, and always reported in his own words, so that his characters seem entrapped by his summaries and corrections.
This is odd in that large parts of the book are in the form of letters from Boston, the enfant terrible who is marked out for pianistic glory. But Boston’s voice is so very like Port’s in its didactic self-importance that this doesn’t truly freshen things.
As events take a darker turn, Boston’s letters increasingly substitute unhinged but very intellectual rants for Port’s poetic forays. For there is true poetry here, small prose poems trapped in the novel like jewels in sand, or like a rich subterranean tenor melody which the pianist’s left hand sustains beneath a stern and chromatic étude. A beautiful description of child’s play at a piano is one particularly enjoyable one, although most such moments are more sombre.
Direct speech is so rare in this novel that when it comes it has the shock value of colloquial spoken language in an opera. Unfortunately Kohl’s conversational dialogue never seems to be character-revealing or quirky but is nearly always dully functional. As a result, every character is shadowy, practically gagged, filtered as they are through the reporting of them by Port. People become types- the gym-honed divorcée, the vain and absentee conservatoire professor, the woolly headed elderly aunt. Even a late-night, whispered phone conversation between Port and Lana, a childhood almost-sweetheart, is glossed in this way. Port tunes us out almost at “hello” and tells us we would be better to hear just his own version of events as his memory is better!
One is left with many unanswered questions so in some ways the book does succeed in living on in the mind long after it is put down. Unfortunately this is mainly because the mysteries, miracles and murder that are at work through the plot seem to hold absolutely no curiosity for Port, his family, the conservatoire – or even the local crime department!
There is certainly much evidence of poetic promise here. But sadly, what lingered for me was not fascination but more a sense of disappointment. An undoubtedly inspired idea for a narrative – and a setting rich with dramatic possibility – had sadly been submerged by an incomplete technical and interpretive mastery.