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The Piano player

By Maybelle Wallis

This stand-alone sequel to Wallis’s first novel Heart of Cruelty is a similarly poignant and compelling page turner. Set in mid-19th Century Dublin at the height of the Great Irish Famine, the city is in the grip of a typhoid and cholera epidemic at a time when the British government are planning to reduce the, already inadequate, famine relief to starving Irish citizens. Conditions in the city’s fever hospitals are dire, political dissent is rife, and there is a growing support for the nationalist cause.

Jane, a piano player, and her actor husband Edmond Verity have travelled to Dublin with the Davenant players who are appearing at the Theatre Royal. Several years previously, before they were married, Edmond had abandoned Jane and confined in the Birmingham workhouse she had lost their new-born baby.

Unknown to her narcissistic but likeable husband, Jane subsequently had an affair with the workhouse coroner, Dr William Doughty who rescued her. Eventually, Jane chose her career and to return to her former lover, Edmond, and left the heartbroken doctor never expecting to meet him again. However, some years later their paths crossed again in Dublin when Edmond becomes involved in dubious gambling activities with the successful professor of the Meath Hospital where William now works. When William suspects the professor of misconduct, and Edmund becomes suspiciously ill, Jane becomes embroiled in a tangled web of criminality, espionage, and deceit.

What distinguishes this novel above others, is Wallis’s ability to provide an immersive experience to readers of what it was like to live in those times. With clear, frequently poetic prose, she skilfully weaves her memorable characters into vivid settings as the gripping drama unfolds. Wallis’s knowledge of historical medical practices, she is also a paediatrician, adds additional interest. Although fictional, the story is also peppered with real historical figures, like the poets, Constance Wilde (née Lloyd) ‘Speranza’ and Thomas Mangan who both play cameo parts. Expertly researched, vividly told, this is a story that will stay with you for some time to come.

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