Ann Ireland is the author of A Certain Mr. Takahashi (winner of the Seal First Novel Award), and Exile (shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize). The first edition of her novel The Instructor was a finalist for the Ontario Trillium Award. She lives in Toronto.
The Blue Guitar
Nerves crunch at the international classical guitar competition in Montreal. There is more than pretty music being performed on this stage.
At the International Classical Guitar Competition in Montreal, top-flight musicians fly in from all over the world to compete in a gruelling week. A career can be made or lost here, and the slightest mishap - a lapse of memory, a shaking right hand, a broken fingernail - can ruin years of preparation.
More than a decade ago Toby made the finals in a similar competition but suffered a breakdown and is only now venturing back into the fray. Middle-aged Lucy is tired of playing bar mitzvahs and weddings and is determined to perform the recital of her life. Trace is a kayaking teenager from the West Coast who seems careless in her talent.
Judges and contestants alike battle and scheme to achieve what they most desire here. There is much more than pretty music being performed on this stage.
… where Ireland really excels is making music, or rather the act of writing about music, quite literally sing, or at least jump off the page. Even those uneducated in the argot, or idiom of musicians and composers can almost hear the glorious sounds she’s describing. Ireland’s novel is unquestionably an engrossing read; one is unsure, until the end, who will win the competition. But one thing is certain, when you put down The Blue Guitar, for the last time, you are confident that young Toby Hausner is free of his demons - at last. And if that’s not redemption, what is?
It may sound unlikely, but Ireland has managed to create a page-turner of a novel about a classical guitar competition: You want to know who will make it to the next round, and who will win.
…what Ireland does exceedingly well is mimic a creative mind under intense pressure. She has the ability to render acoustic sound in language that is beautiful and startling. What is perhaps most convincing is her depiction of Toby’s struggle to integrate his music and his life, and to reclaim what the impetuousness of his youth cost him.
The stark frankness of the last few pages of The Blue Guitar are powerful and brave, the sort of writing one sees only from a writer in full command of her powers, a flaying depiction of intimate brutality and selfishness that one might well recognize from life but rarely sees in such unadorned form in fiction.
Author Ann Ireland, whose first book, A Certain Mr. Takahashi , also deals with classic music, is expert at evoking the emotional roller coaster of competition life: the egos, the panic, the prep, the rhythms of the contest, the way the adjudicators talk about the musicians.
Ireland (whose previous novel, Exile, was shortlisted for a 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award) packs her tale with such vivid description that it is easy to imagine being among the competitors. She also engages in her trademark sensitive and unflinching investigation of relationships.
... the author’s intense and detailed description of those who dare to tread the knife’s edge in search of musical and creative excellence makes for a compelling read.
The Blue Guitar is such a pleasurable read that it would be easy to exit the world Ireland creates without a thought to the cleverness with which it was crafted. The competition creates tension and expectation but it is the musicality of the language, the complexity of the characters and the intricate structure of the novel that make it memorable.
As Part of her research, Ireland must have spent time backstage attending one of these weeklong tournaments, because her sensitivity to the workings of the mind in performance and the eccentricities of pre-concert rituals is remarkably accurate.