The ordinariness of 1960s Australian suburban life searching for something extraordinary is Peter Goldsworthy’s deceptively simple tale.
Transferred to the distant tropical Darwin from Adelaide, the close knit Crabbe family look to establish a life worth living, removed as they are from their passion of music. Dad (a work promotion resulting in his transfer to the Darwin hospital) is the piano player, mom is the font of knowledge as they look to teenage son Paul to make the grade. So much so Paul finds himself the reluctant student of Eduard Keller, a hard-drinking Austrian with a boozers incandescent glow and of whom little in known.
Narrated from the perspective of an adult Paul, more than a tinge of remorse and regret underpins Maestro as the now underachieving recital pianist reflects on the opportunities once offered by Keller. Whilst his parents trade music-related witticisms and help establish the likes of the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Paul suffers for his art. A hard-task master, the exercising of fingers forming weeks of lessons before any piano key is touched, Keller demands focus and commitment. Blunt and devoid of any social skills, the man’s history is, in part, slowly revealed. But to a teenage boy in the early 1960s, much to the regret of an older Paul, recent European history is a distant fug. The respect deserved for a musician of the Vienna Opera House, widowed Holocaust survivor and renowned teacher was neither forthcoming nor understood.
Maestro is a gentle, compassionate coming-of-age where childhood and Paul’s teenage years are one of looking to be accepted with Keller and piano lessons a chore. It’s only as a less-than-successful adult can he reflect on missed opportunities and the reality of a lonely, ageing old man a long way from his former sophisticated world.
An Australian Society of Authors Top 40 Australian Books of All Time, Maestro was shortlisted for the 1990 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Tom Flood and Oceana Fine.