THE BLUE GUITAR by Ann Ireland (Dundurn), 254 page, $19.99 paper. Ireland launches The Blue Guitar on Tuesday (February 12) with an onstage interview with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and performances by guitarists Michael Kolk and Alina Grunina at the Gladstone as part of This Is Not A Reading Series. See listings. Rating: NNN
Try juggling this. Lucy has an uncle who could be a pedophile and twin sons who hate school. Manuel's alienated from his family and has been denied a visa for a visit he must make to Canada. Health clinic director Jasper is in deep conflict with the chairman of the board, and a devastating virus is about to take hold of Toronto. In the meantime, Jasper's lover Tony has slipped off to Montreal, while Tony's father has fled his retirement home.
That's a lot. But get this. Those are just the subplots in this story about the competitors and judges involved in an international classical guitar competition. The main character is actually Toby, a brilliant guitarist who flamed out when he competed as a teenager and is in Montreal trying to get back his musical mojo. Lucy is a competitor, too, a 40-something female underdog among an array of rising male stars. Manuel is one of the judges.
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.
If she doesn't play the guitar herself, she's done a whack of research to prepare to tell the story. Her knowledge of the instrument's canon is immense, and she knows how it feels to get blisters, lose a nail or suffer stage fright just before the big performance.
And the narrative charges along as Toby deals with his fears of having another meltdown.
But there's too much else going on, forcing Ireland to leave most of her threads dangling. And the cluttered storyline prevents her from developing relationships deeply enough, so some of the characters - especially Jasper - behave in ways that haven't been properly set up.
But there's a lot to love here from an author who likes to take risks. You'll never listen to classical guitar the same way again.