Music and money drive Ann Eriksson’s fifth novel. Hana Knight is a gifted young pianist who narrates the story of her family, her struggles as a musician, and her relationship with a deranged homeless woman named Jacqueline.
All her life, Hana has focused almost entirely on music, to the detriment of her family. Her father is gone, and her sister bears most of the responsibility for their mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The Knight family has experienced trauma, evidently financial, that causes their previously smooth lives to upend. But their problems are still nothing compared to those faced by people on the streets. Oddly, Hana, who grew up in Vancouver, graduated from the University of British Columbia, and lived in Toronto for a while, only notices the extent of the homeless crisis when she arrives in Manhattan. What are we to make of a character who says, “Toronto and Vancouver had homeless people too, but I hadn’t paid enough attention to guess the numbers when I lived there”?
Hana becomes invested in helping Jacqueline; her ability to do so stems from the fact that Hana has people working on her behalf. She is given a scholarship to Julliard, then is lucky enough to have a wealthy patron supply her with money, a rent-free apartment, and plans for a concert tour. The extremes of wealth and poverty, as dramatized in the novel, are powerful indictments of modern society.
Contrast is a key feature in The Performance, and one important contrast occurs in Hana herself. She vacillates between utter selfishness and generosity, but it’s difficult to get a sense of her true nature. Her self-absorption may be chalked up to dedication to her art or to immaturity, but it’s irritating that Hana thinks more about doing something for a stranger than about her family.
The Performance is filled with details about life on the street and life as a musician. If you can believe that Hana would follow Jacqueline into Central Park at night and end up sleeping there, then you may be able to accept all the other stuff that happens in this book. If not, you are liable to have the same reaction as Tomas, Jacqueline’s son, who says, “This whole story sounds preposterous.” It’s not that the events couldn’t happen: it’s that Hana is an awkward character, apparently created to suit the needs of a work of fiction more bent on social criticism.