My thanks to NetGalley and RandomHouse UK for a review copy of the book. This is a Japanese novel translated into English by Philip Gabriel (who has also translated Murakami).
The Forest of Wool and Steel tells us the story of a young man Tomura. As a high school student, Tomura was deputed one day to conduct a piano tuner, Mr Itadori to the school gym to tune the piano. Hearing him work, more specifically the sounds that he manages to produce, evokes in his mind images of the forest at nightfall, the forest being the one place where Tomura feels welcome and at peace. This experience affects him so deeply that he decides to train as a piano tuner, even though he has so far never played the piano, nor has much of a ear for music. Once he completes his course, he joins the same company where Mr Itadori works in Hokkaido, and it is here that we follow him as he learns from each little experience—attempts at tuning on his own, accompanying his mentor Mr Yanagi, and other senior tuners from the firm (including the not-so-pleasant Mr Akino), or simply from hearing performances, whether at a concert hall or in a home, as different players (clients) approach the piano differently and require different things from it. In all this, his quest is not simply to become a master tuner or a specific kind of tuner but to achieve the kind of sublime sound from his work that Mr Itadori had, and which inspired him to take up this course in the first place. Among his various clients are twins Yuni and Kazune who are sixth form students, and whose journey with the piano is in a way entwined with Tomura’s own.
This book was an interesting read, and while nothing major happens—we are basically following Tomura through his everyday experiences, seeing him learn something new about turning though each visit to a client or each observation of another tuner—yet, at no point did I get bored or feel that the book was dragging. In fact, one feels as though one is learning with Tomura, experiencing each little lesson with him, on the quest with him to become good at his work. Throughout, Tomura is plagued by self-doubt wondering if he will ever be good enough, be able to get past the technicalities and achieve what he is looking for, revising at times, what he thinks his goal should be—this is something that I could (and am sure others would too) relate with because it is about trying to be the best that you can be at something you love, and in that, one does experience these feelings. For Tomura, besides questioning his own abilities, he is constantly considering who he is tuning for—the client, the audience, or perhaps, the instrument itself? Reading this book, something that will strike you throughout is how knowledgeable the author is, not only about the piano and music but about various nuances of tuning—humidity, whether the curtains in a room are open or closed, even the height of the stool of the player are as likely to affect sound as parts of the piano like its hammers and strings. We learn a little of the instrument’s history as well—and all of this knowledge flows naturally though the text, no information dump here. Another aspect which makes this book very pleasant to read is the images and sounds that are invoked when one reads it—Tomura is often thinking of the forest (he was brought up in a mountain village)—all very prettily described. A pleasant read about the quest to be the best in one’s calling! (Also, it hardly feels like one is reading a translation.)
The book has won several prizes in Japan and has also been turned into a film.
The book releases on 25 April 2019!