Live broadcasts of the 2012 Sydney International Piano Competition provided perfect background music for a first reading of Stephen Orr's latest novel about a young Australian prodigy, Erwin Hergert, and his mother's quest to make him ''the great Australian pianist'' of the 1940s. As 36 young pianists from around the world rippled their way through the great piano repertoire from Beethoven to Scriabin, the competition was a reminder of the sacrifices and commitment of the pianist's path. Years of repetitive practice to prepare for a lifetime of intense competition, financial insecurity and the ever-present risks of injury, obscurity or failure. You'd need not only talent, drive and money, but also luck and a supportive family. And yet - here's hoping none of today's young pianists have mothers like Erwin Hergert's.
At the novel's opening, in Tanunda, South Australia, in 1937, Madge Hergert is already a woman possessed - although it's not until late in the novel that we (and her son) fully understand why. After banishing her Barossa German husband to the shed till his premature death from cancer, Madge dedicates her life to ''her boy'', who at birth she imagines ''part Zeus, part Bach, the fingers of Moszkowski and the fire of Paganini, the humour of Chaplin and the heart of Hans Christian Andersen''. Not surprisingly, Erwin must suffer to live up to that. There's nothing figurative about the horsewhip Madge cracks at any mistake in his practice or - even worse - any waning of his willpower.
''Assertive, bully, or pain in the arse?'' Erwin's German girlfriend Luise later wonders about this smother-mother par excellence. Madge drags him from one piano teacher to another as his skills outpace theirs. Determined to escape the mediocrity of Australia, she obtains a place for Erwin at the Hamburg conservatorium through her persistence. Ominously, the letter of acceptance arrives with a stamp of Adolf Hitler. Oblivious to all but her mission, Madge organises Erwin's farewell concert and takes up a collection from the audience. ''Good riddance,'' Madge thinks as their ship heads for Europe.
Dissonance's fictional tale of talent, conflict, domination and ambiguous relationships plays on parallels with the early life and career of Australia's Percy Grainger and his domineering, disciplinarian mother Rose. Both Erwin and Percy are precociously talented, good-looking child pianists who leave Australia to study in Germany. Like Percy, Erwin is already dabbling in composition, infuriating his German lecturer with his unconventional flattened ninths, his English expressions markings (''Like a contented child'' instead of cantabile) and his eclectic counterpoint that blends ''Bach, Schoenberg … and Duke Ellington''. And like Percy, Erwin's sex life is scarred by his punitive upbringing. ''Erwin is … peculiar,'' Madge tells Luise in a rare understatement.
But Orr makes one significant deviation by setting Erwin's story 40 years after Percy's. Erwin and his mother arrive in Hamburg in 1938 to book burnings, musical censorship (Mendelssohn is banned), Hitler Youth parades, and state-sponsored attacks on Jewish businesses. When Germany ''reunites'' with Austria Erwin's teacher asks the elephant-in-the-room question: ''What I can't understand … is why your mother brought you here?'' Had she never heard of Spain, or Franco, or Mussolini? Erwin's reply reveals Madge's obsession and his naivety: ''We never read papers, unless I'm reviewed,'' he tells the professor. ''We just stay out of it … It's none of our business.''
Over the next 200 pages this central dissonance of the novel is gradually dismantled as what had seemed to Erwin like an opera, ''a pastiche of borrowed song, old costumes and predictable choreography'', turns into real soldiers shooting real guns. Real bombs bring Luise and Madge into daily conflict. Real encounters with the Nazi's management of the Jews and the Poles leave Erwin wondering, ''I don't know how I ended up here … I'm just an Australian.'' Even Madge, in 1942, is ready to admit defeat of sorts: ''Son, I think it's time we went home.'' But is it too late?
Realist novels like Orr's demand evaluation on realist criteria. Are the characters convincing, with psychological depth and distinct voices? Is the plot credible? Do form and content complement each other, with technical resources like viewpoint, style and structure manipulated to underscore coherent themes and messages? Does all this work together to engage the reader and make them care about the fate of this fictional world?
On most counts, the answer is yes. Orr is an accomplished writer, with three novels (including a Vogel/Australian Award runner-up) to his credit. Dissonance is a rich, layered and absorbing novel, whose settings are brought to life by striking similes - curtains that flutter ''like a flag on a cold Anzac morning''; notes of a scale that flow ''like a Mixmaster changing speed''. Madge is a complex character, whose strong voice and viewpoint dominate the novel, accurately expressing her role in Erwin's life. Her acerbic descriptions of anyone she comes in contact with are ruthlessly in character. When she first meets Luise she thinks: ''brown eyes and a smile - the downfall of a hundred million men'' but behind it ''rusty metal fingernails, clawing at her son, holding him down''.
Orr reinforces Madge's overbearing personality by making almost all the other characters minor. We see from their viewpoints only intermittently, and often they are then reflecting Madge's awfulness back to us. The dilemma for Orr is Erwin. To make him real, Orr writes often from Erwin's viewpoint, giving us access to his insights and reactions. But to make Erwin credible - the likely outcome of such an overpowering mother - Erwin must choose submission over rebellion. As a result, Erwin remains an ambivalent, largely passive character. He sees what is happening around him - his mother's appropriation of his life; Luise's attempts to free them of Madge; Germany's assault on Europe - but he makes little impact on any of it. Even while the real war threatens to annihilate him, Erwin's challenge remains his mother: ''He wondered if he could survive the old girl.'' As a reader, I wondered the same thing.
Suzanne Eggins is a Canberra-based research fellow with the University of Technology Sydney.