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It is essential to the success of any form of entertainment regardless of the medium to be able to capture the interest of its intended audience. Kurt Palka does this perfectly in his novel The Piano Maker by creating constant suspense, so that the reader always wants to know what happens next. This effect is accomplished using literary features such as the setting, foreshadowing, and flashbacks. Kurt Palka masterfully uses these literary devices in his novel in order to build a gripping plot that has high emotional stakes, tension, and suspense.
The main setting of the novel is Saint Homais, a small, quiet town in the French Shore of Nova Scotia. This setting symbolizes a fresh start for Helene, a peaceful and calm place far away from her tumultuous past life. That is why there is such a profound effect on the reader when she is told the following by a local policeman, “I have here before me a warrant to give notice and apprehend. You are to be held on fresh evidence relating to the unnatural death of Mr. Nathan Homewood . . .” (Palka 59). In the early parts of the book, Helene is adjusting to her new environment and settling down into her new life in Saint Homais. Almost the entire town welcomes her with warmth and love. When the revelation comes out that she might be a murderer, it is a crisis which devastates her entire world. Everything she has worked so hard to build in her new life comes crashing down. The town which once welcomed her so kindly is now mostly cold and distant towards her. Because the reader understands the overwhelming effect that being accused of murder has on her, and how desperately Helene wants to prove her innocence, it raises the reader’s emotional stakes and allows for the suspense and tension to be more powerful.
The author uses foreshadowing very heavily throughout the book as he slowly reveals more about Helene’s past to the reader. One instance of foreshadowing which stands out in particular is when Helene has a nightmare about the accident involving Nathan. This dream foreshadows the central plot and climax of the novel but is carefully worded so it keeps the reader guessing and anxious to find out more. The passage gives little pieces describing the accident, such as a cave of horror and the darkness and blood in the snow. Then the author starts to allude to a so-called “outcome” of the accident as the narrator says, “She knew the outcome well by now . . . It came on without mercy like blows to a terrified child, and only rarely did she wake before it happened. But that night she did.”(Palka 11). The author leaves it at that and does not describe what the “outcome” is. Throughout this entire passage, the author’s diction is vague, avoiding getting into the specifics of the accident. The word choice focuses on the incoherent sensations that Helene is experiencing in her nightmare instead of painting a clear picture. By doing this, the author is able to create suspense, and this foreshadowing leaves the reader anxious until the point when the entire truth about the accident is revealed.
The novel constantly jumps back and forth in between Helene’s past and present through a plethora of flashbacks. These flashbacks form a separate storyline about Helene’s past which ends up merging together with the present-day plot. The way that Palka cleverly uses flashbacks is able to allow the two storylines to work off of one another which in turn heightens the suspense. The two plots first start merging into together right after a flashback into Helene’s past related to the accident. The plot then shifts back into the present with the following passage, “Whenever she paused in her narrative, there was a great silence in the market hall . . . ‘And then what, Mrs. Giroux?’ said the assistant Crown. ‘Would you please move more quickly and get to the moment when you murdered Mr. Nathan Homewood.’”(Palka 215). In this passage, the author reveals that the flashbacks have been Helene recalling past events while testifying during the trial. Having the flashbacks coincide with the present plot elevates the climax to a whole new level. This is because, throughout the entire novel, the author has been building up to the trial through the plot in the present, and the accident through the flashback plot. By synching together the timing of the two plots, it allows the suspense built up in both plots to play off of each other. The reader is now not only in suspense because they want to know how the accident unfolds, but they’re made to be even more invested in what’s going to happen next because whether or not Helene will be able to prove her innocence also depends on this.
Setting, foreshadowing, and flashbacks were all literary devices which the author used in order to effectively convey the effect of suspense. Kurt Palka uses these literary devices to construct a unique and interesting plot which keeps the readers hooked at every turn. By properly crafting a suspenseful plot, the author grabs the reader’s attention and is able to keep their interest throughout, something that is crucial for any book.
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