Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite
Letters to the Pianist is a historical fiction novel written by S.D. Mayes. The East End of London was not a happy place for a child, or indeed any living creature, in 1941. Fourteen-year-old Ruth and her little sister and brother were among the few children still in the area, most families having sent their children off to relatives and friends in safer places in England, but their dad had wanted to keep the family together. They still found escape in the pages of their books like Treasure Island, The Secret Garden and Peter Pan, and were even able to overlook the rubble and blasted streets when they were out playing. Mama was strangely out of sync with the children and their gentle and whimsical dad, and she seemed to find an especial delight in tormenting Ruth, her eldest child, lashing out at her for not going out and finding work to help with the family bills. On a night when everything had been as close to perfect as it could be, Mama called Ruth into the kitchen and Ruth went off to bed, her cheek still stinging from her mother’s hand. Ruth woke some hours later, choking in the dust and rubble. A rescuer finally found her and was able to free her from the rocks and debris that had kept her imprisoned. Her brother and sister had also survived the latest bombing raid, but her parents were gone forever.
S.D. Mayes’s historical fiction novel, Letters to the Pianist, is a taut and suspenseful tale of wartime intrigue that also charts the coming of age of Ruth, Hannah and Gabi, three East End orphans whose lives are changed for the better through the kindness of their Aunt Betty. Mayes deftly weaves in the psychological thriller aspects of this tale as the amnesiac found in an East London hospital ward is discovered to have become a profoundly gifted musical savant, composer and pianist, who takes London and Europe by storm and whose mentor and eventual father-in-law has very dark secrets. Mayes homes in directly on the uncomfortable facts of the existence of upper class solidarity with Hitler’s hatred and fear of the Jews in Britain, and the lure that fascism held for some of the privileged classes in that country. Her characters are marvelous, especially the brilliant Aunt Betty and Ruth, who is so much more than she realizes. Letters to the Pianist is most highly recommended.