“A beautifully told story of pianos and life,”
Girls at the Piano opens with two mysteries. The first is the question Virginia Lloyd is asked by everyone at her school reunion, do you still play the piano? She doesn’t. The second is the mystery of her grandmother’s life, a humourless and somewhat frightening woman who lived in rural New South Wales. Years after her death, Lloyd uncovers a small box of her possessions and discovers evidence of a complicated earlier life in music in Scotland, an unknown life. This memoir is Lloyd’s attempt to solve these mysteries.
The main story in Girls at the Piano is Lloyd’s. Childhood music lessons, competitions and relationships with her peers and family are recounted with intimacy, honesty and humour. Lloyd was a gifted pianist. Her talents were recognized by her teachers and provided Lloyd with a defining role during her school years. Yet as she moves through adolescence, she starts to question her talent and motivation. Lloyd gives up her piano; instead she becomes an observer, regularly attending jazz concerts at The Basement in Sydney. She starts to fantasise about writing rather than performing (women don’t play jazz piano, she notices).
Into this story, Lloyd interweaves stories of her grandmother’s life, fragments of fact provide the launching points for exploration in fiction, imagining this other life lost to music. Lloyd weaves a third story of the piano into her memoir. This is the story of the piano itself, revealed through writers and pianists, presenting texts that tell us of the instrument, its history and place in their life.
You need to be a daring and gifted writer to construct a book like this, and that’s exactly what Lloyd is. Her early life was devoted to the piano, her career has been in writing, as an editor and author. This book is Lloyd’s way of reconciling her two life forces. Drawing us into her world, we share doubts, challenges and eventually a deep understanding.
Ultimately Lloyd realizes, “I had become so focused on solo performance for the sake of competition and advanced grades, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed playing with others. It was fun, it was pointless, so I stopped.” We emerge at the close of this book able to see the ripples the piano created throughout Lloyd’s life.
This is Virginia Lloyd’s second book. Her first, The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement was released in 2008 and dealt with rising damp and widowhood (single at 32, married at 33, widowed at 34). Hopefully we don’t have to wait a further decade for her next work. If you love music and good writing, you should read a copy of Girls at the Piano.