The power of music in its relation to a racially divided family and culture is dramatized with unprecedented brilliance in this panoramic novel: the eighth from the protean author of, most recently, Plowing the Dark (2000).
The major characters are the New York City Strom family: father David, a German Jewish refugee and professor of physics at Columbia University; his black wife Delia, a gifted singer denied opportunities to develop her talent; and their three “mixed” children: Jonah (who inherits his mother’s glorious voice), his brother and partner Joseph, and their younger sister Ruth. Powers’s thickly detailed narrative ranges back and forth in time—to 1939, when Delia and David first meet, and the succeeding years; then throughout the Strom children’s lives as Joseph, remembering it all long afterward, recounts for us Jonah’s triumphant singing career, his own journeyman’s life in music, and Ruth’s angry absorption into black militancy. The Stroms’ experiences are counterpointed—rather too pointedly—against such watershed events as a famous Marian Anderson concert performed in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial, the Emmett Till murder case, the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, and the Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles riots. Powers’s impassioned criticisms of racism are often jarringly strident (white musicians’ liberalism, for example, is labeled “that plea bargain that high culture employs to get all charges against it dropped”). But such awkwardness is subsumed in this rich novel’s verbal agility, depth of characterization, historical and social range, and propulsive readability. And, as a grace note of sorts, Powers demonstrates that he knows as much about musical technique, theory, and history as he seems to know about almost everything else.
The most accessible, and powerful fiction yet from a major American writer who, against all odds, just keeps getting better.