“You have to strip away all preconceptions” says one of the characters in Natsu Miyashita’s novel The Forest of Wool and Steel, and I tried when I picked up this book. It was an adventure for me at all sorts of levels. I don’t read much Japanese literature — barely any, in fact — and it’s set in the rather arcane world of piano tuning, about which I know nothing.
And it’s a book in translation, which wouldn’t normally bother me but there were a couple of clumsy turns of phrase which caught me out, and I wasn’t sure how much of this was down to the translator or ho much was the intention of the author — nothing significant, but enough to distract me. (“A celebratory piece to celebrate the happy couple” is one example.
Tomura is deputed one day to take the local piano tuner to deal with the school piano and this sets off a burning ambition within him to become a piano tuner himself. As he works his way through his apprenticeship he learns life lessons to add to his piano tuning — lessons about talent and persistence, humility and failure. And he learns them not just from his colleagues but from his clients, in particular the talented twin pianists Yuni and Katsune.
Perhaps it was me, but it took a long while to get going. The technical stuff went over my head and the way that every well-tuned piano brought some positivity into the lives of even the most clumsy amateur pianist left me feeling a little inferior. (I too have had a bad piano tuned and I’m afraid I couldn’t hear any of the subtle differences that Miyashita describes. Was that me? Or did I just have an awful piano tuner?)
I enjoyed it, though. It wasn’t a rip-roaring read but eventually I was drawn in to Tomura’s pilgrimage, to his understanding and interpretation of how the forest of wool and steel (the description of the innards of a piano) tied in with his own upbringing. By the end I understood that he’d learned a lot about himself and his soul, and it’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a while to come.
Thanks to Netgalley and Random House UK for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.