Shortlist year: 2022

Shortlist category: Fiction

Published by: Fomite

A neurotic freelance writer aims to prove that pianos kill elite pianists. For decades, he has grappled with the guilt that followed an accident in which he severed his talented sister's fingers, ending her promising career at the keyboard. His investigations centre on the violent deaths at 31 of three great pianists, his detective work taking him from Melbourne to Geelong and Sydney, to the south of France, London, Sussex, and the Czech Republic.

About the author


Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes's short story 'Last Meal' won the 2020 United Kingdom Fiction Factory's prize, and five of his recent stories have been longlisted and shortlisted in prestigious UK competitions, including the Bridport and Fish prizes. A few of his food-themed non-fiction books have won Australian and international awards. A lifelong writer and journalist, he reviewed restaurants weekly over many years for some of Australia's top newspapers, including The Australian Financial Review. Salaried at The Age, he was a section editor and leader and feature writer. He covered a Middle-East war for Agence France-Presse and a Pacific uprising for The Age.

Judges’ comments

Stephen Downes' 'The Hands of Pianists' is an extraordinary piece of fiction which rehearses the shadows and startling insights of a quest to fathom the disturbing hypothesis of the talented pianist as the victim of a predestined doom. The book has a brilliant sense of darkness and an irresistible dramatic power. It is manifestly influenced by the great German re-animator of the actual W.G. Sebald but Downes' use of Sebald's fictional idiom and strategies is something he makes his own with a virtuoso assurance that actually brings to mind the great seventeenth century dramatists who were the peers of Shakespeare because they wore his influence like a glove from which they could achieve mighty things. 'The Hands of Pianists' is a patently mad book by a writer of the very first rank who can conjure multitudes of felt realities even as his narrator probes the darkest and most deranged reaches of self-scrutiny. This is a debut novel by a man of 74 who has spent a lifetime writing with great élan and authority about food. It may be far from everyday taste but it reminds us of why Thomas Bernhard and WG Sebald are among the greater writers since World War II because of the ways in which it equals them.