A CanCon classic, and Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute, first out in 1945, follows the fate of feisty Florentine, Montreal waitress during WWII, as she fights family poverty and relationship neglect. There’s your boilerplate plot synopsis, and if that were all the novel offered as thematic thrust and narrative line, it would be boilerplate to potboiler. Fortunately, there are sub-plots (or, more accurately, interior interludes) that make up the heart of the structure: father Azarius fighting his own lassitude and lack of purpose; mother Rose-Anna trying to keep her brood alive; Florentine’s shy second suitor, Emmanuel, infatuated, pursuing his desire with a painful mix of courageous persistence and hangdog passivity; and the snowblown streets and windowpanes themselves as (obvious yet lyrically well-handled) symbolic back-up to the shifting tonal state of the characters.
Fortunate, too, that the plot scaffolding covers little of the roof, because the Florentine-Jean will-he-won’t-he romance is pure melodrama. When the weather fails to make a point artfully, Roy dips into Florentine and Jean’s skulls with the stock groaners, “with her whole being” and “he shook his head emphatically”.
Still, the author’s grasp of psychological understanding is often acute, wise, and convincing across multiple characters in the same scene. And she gives an honest sense of perplexity without mawkish exclamation, in many instances, when dealing with the motivations and decisions of Florentine, Emmanuel and Azarius, (not so much with Jean or some of the minor personages).
Intermittently affecting, the novel is too uneven, yet its worth seems pressed in canonical cement, and after modernism’s earlier upheaval, there’s little excuse for the faded Victorianism. SPOILER! (The sex scene and subsequent pregnancy are alluded to in the airiest of hints, a quaint and amusing hunt for today’s reader.) Yet there’s a courageous honesty that lingers underneath the often ramped-up emotion, and I’d recommend the book mildly because of it.