After suffering a breakdown at an international competition, guitarist Toby Hauser retreats from performance and settles into domestic life with his partner, Jasper. A decade after his collapse, Toby decides to venture back into the world of competitive playing at another international competition in Montreal.
Ann Ireland’s fourth novel delves into the pressures a major competition places on both competitors and judges. Along with Toby, the musicians include Trace, a young girl from the Gulf Islands, and Lucy, a middle-aged woman from Toronto. Among the judges are a Cuban who has problems with both his wife and his visa, an American woman angling for power, and a British man who works at an American university.
Ireland (whose previous novel, Exile, was shortlisted for a 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award) packs her tale with such vivid description that it is easy to imagine being among the competitors. She also engages in her trademark sensitive and unflinching investigation of relationships. A key motif of The Blue Guitar is memory – the skilful memory required to be a top-notch musician as well as the more quotidian memory employed in navigating everyday life.
Ireland maintains the tension of the competition and the interpersonal relationships among her characters with equal dexterity, juxtaposing short sections involving the musical milieu with more personal concerns – Jasper’s job problems, for example, or Lucy’s worries about her teenage sons. The novel is full of references to composers and their work, providing a handy playlist for those with an interest in classical guitar.
At the heart of the book is the question of identity. How far can or should one go to express oneself? And when does personal expression become destructive? Toby’s past disaster, we come to understand, grew out of an inability to take care of himself while focusing on his music. But where, Ireland asks, should one draw the line? The Blue Guitar examines musical genius and human fallibility with informed thoughtfulness.