Musical prodigy vanishes on day of debut, is discovered four decades later by his childhood friend.
A confident first novel (and Whitbread Prize winner) from veteran English music journalist/author Lebrecht (Covent Garden, 2001, etc.) ranges widely through classical music, Jewish culture, and wartime London. It’s 1939, and narrator Martin Simmonds is the only child of middle-class Jews, his father a music publisher and impresario. His wretched loneliness ends when nine-year-old David-Eli Rapoport (Dovidl) comes to live with them. Dovidl has left his family in Warsaw to study the violin with a master. The two boys hit it off. Martin is happy to follow the lead of the dynamic Dovidl, reveling in his newfound self-esteem as Dovidl becomes his alter ego. They explore London together, enjoying the adventure of the Phony War, though when the bombs reach their neighborhood, Martin sees a darker side of his friend, who takes money off a corpse. His father has already warned him that every artist has “a hard core of brute egotism.” At war’s end, Dovidl learns that his family had been deported to Treblinka, and accepts their death. He continues playing, and old man Simmonds’s publicity campaign engenders huge expectations for his 1951 debut. His disappearance shatters the family. Martin’s father dies, his mother is institutionalized, and Martin salvages the business, entering a sterile “half-life,” listlessly raising his own family. Forward to 1991. Judging a provincial music contest, a young competitor’s use of rubato convinces Martin that his mentor was Dovidl. He tracks the player down and hears his story. Dovidl is a Talmudic scholar in an ultraorthodox sect, a transformation that began the day of his aborted debut. But would a blindly selfish genius ever have submitted so passively to his religious heritage? The about-face is hard to swallow, as is Martin’s eventual evolution from cautious fuddy-duddy to daring, hard-nosed avenger.
Still, flaws in characterization aside, there’s plenty to enjoy here: lively intelligence, fine social history, and enough of a novelist’s sensibility to make you hungry for more.