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Lily Kilworth is remembered with affectionate wariness by her illegitimate son, Charlie, following her death (in 1939) in a fire in an Ontario asylum. Marshalling his own memories of her, together with information elicited from others, Charlie pieces together his mother's family background and history in a fervent attempt to learn the identity of his father and to understand Lily's mysteriously divided nature. It's a sweeping story, beginning in 1889 with the seduction of Lily's mother Edith ("Ede") by a traveling piano-salesman, her lover's accidental death, and Ede's later marriage to his brother; the narrative bristles thereafter with a succession of passionate surrenders to impulse, grievous illnesses, untimely deaths, and recurring signs of Lily's "madness"—in part the inherited "falling sickness" (or epilepsy) that keeps her forever on the fringes of respectable society. Life in Canada from the 1890's to the 1930's is evoked in convincing detail, and Findley's characterizations are both effectively specific and satisfyingly opaque. But it's all a bit too self-consciously Brontëan (there is, in fact, a revealing allusion to this influence in the names given a trio of housemaids). Tramplings by horses, convulsions, brain tumors, premonitions of death by fire, among other excesses, make for an overheated narrative—even granting the central presence of a heroine who once "absolutely believed Elizabeth Barrett Browning was in possession of her being." We feel the fascination Lily Kilworth exerts over people, but we never fully believe the gothic circumstances that overtake them.
No great shakes as a literary performance but, nonetheless, a generally absorbing saga that will probably be much in evidence around the beaches this summer. It's a cut above R.F. Delderfield and Daphne du Maurier, and one or two below Jane Eyre.
I had seen her just the day before -- a day of pale blue skies and summer breezes. We had stood on the lawns beneath the chestnut trees and she had said: the leaves are talking to me, Charlie.
There were wooden chairs and tables painted green. At some of the tables, other patients sat with their relatives. Only relatives were allowed to visit -- relatives or deputized lawyers who came with pieces of paper requiring signatures.
"Do you remember Ada? She used to play the piano at The Duke of York when pictures were still silent."
Lily put this question every time I went to see her.
"Yes," I said.
"There she is, sitting thinking Neddy is going to come and take her away. You remember Neddy?"
Yes. He played the violin and wore a bow-tie. He had been in love with Lily.
"I sometimes think he may still turn up," she said, her gaze averted. "After all, we only know he went missing."
No. We knew he was dead. I said nothing.
Her hand went up to shade her eyes when she said this. Not to keep them out of the sun, but to align her focus. I could tell by the expression on her face that she was looking directly into the past, where most of us-she thought-had gone.
"The time will come," she said, "when there will have to be a gathering-everyone brought together in one safe place . . ." She dropped her hand and squinted at the near distance, where a wall defined her confinement. "This is not a safe place, Charlie," she said. "In spite of its being an asylum."
"People like me, I guess we aren't safe anywhere."
"Not in this world."
Then, in thatway she had of telling reality to go to hell, she smiled. "But you and I don't live in this world. Do we."
No. We don't.
"Thank god," I added.
She took my hand and said to me: "you look good today, Charlie." "Thank you."
"If only we knew who your father was, he could come to the gathering, too."
"Yes. The one I just spoke of-all of us brought together . .
"Do you mind not knowing who he was?" she said.
I lied and said: no, because that was what she needed to hear. Lily had never known who my father was. It was not a part of the information she had been handed about her own life. It was one of the reasons she was there in that asylum-her passion for strangers-her belief that we have to put our trust in them-even offer them our lives, if we must. It doesn't mean they will take them, Charlie, she would say. If you give a life, you get one.
"You know why you look so good today, Charlie?" she asked.
Now, she was being her old mischievous self. She took my arm in both her hands and smiled up into my face. She could break your heart with that riveting gaze and her lips with their crooked, childlike smile. I almost had to look away. But she held me from it with her eyes.
"No," I said. "Tell me."
"You look like a boy I was in love with, once. I don't remember his name, but I know that you are his, and that's enough. What is it people say? Everything tbat goes around, comes around? Is that right?"
"Well, you've come around for me, Charlie. And you've brought him with you-whoever he was."
The smile had begun to fade.
"Shall we sit?" she said. "Or shall we walk?"
"Walk," I said. I wanted to get away from the little green chairs and tables and all the other families who had come to be with their people. And the sight of Lily's friend Ada, sitting alone and looking with expectant eyes at every young man who passed. Are you my son Neddy?
Lily, my mother, held to my arm, and we went in further beneath the trees until we were all the way past the tables and walking on the grass.
"That's not the kind of gathering I mean," said Lily, as if she had read my distress at the sight of all the hopeless others. "At the gathering I mean, we will all be brought together into one safe place. And we will dance."
There it was: her catechism. One safe place. The gathering. And dance. Lily dancing -- and song.
We went out over the lawns and stood, then, looking back at where we had been. Her hand on my arm held tighter. Her other hand went up to pull at the brim of her hat. It was odd. I swear I heard her say: good-bye, Cbarlie-- but when I looked, her mouth was setand she was silent.
The next day, I was awakened by a phone call. It was 7:00 A.M., and they wanted me to come and identify her body.
She had died by fire as she had lived, in a circle of strangers. For once, she had made no attempt to escape. Her running -- at long last -- came to its end in the Asylum for the Insane at Whitby, Ontario, on Monday, the seventeenth of July, 1939. One month after her forty-ninth birthday.The Piano Man's Daughter. Copyright © by Timothy Findley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.