Historical Fiction

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

I had no idea what to expect when I got into this novel. But after reading it, I can honestly say that it has defied any expectations I might have had. Here is my review:

Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the heir to one of America’s top fortunes. They really should never have become friends. But they have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to record every sound he can, in an attempt to create something different. Carter is fixated on blues music from the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

This novel tries to be a lot of things. It tries to be a ghost story, a murder mystery, a story about race and exploitation. It ends up just being confusing. The story is told entirely from Seth’s point of view, and he really does make for a great voice; his blandness works to his advantage. Even though the novel isn’t actually divided into two parts, my reading experience has divided it into the first half, where things made sense, and the second half, where things were just a mess. The first half was great. It’s all about how Carter and Seth strike up their unlikely friendship, how Carter has this obsession and the money to carry on with it, how Seth is caught up in it all. There’s a lot of talk about blues and jazz, music that I really don’t listen to, but I’ve come to appreciate by reading this novel. In terms of music appreciation, this novel really does a great job. It’s well researched and nicely documented here. The transition between the first half and the second half is really interesting: the story flits from past to present. I actually quite liked the transition, but I was expecting that the chapters recalling the past would explain to me what was happening in the present … and it didn’t. And then the story becomes a mess. There’s a ghost and there are chapters told from perspectives that may not be Seth’s but I don’t know whose voice is telling the story. I found myself getting more and more confused, and hoping that the next chapter would clarify things. By the end, I finally figured everything out. But the whole experience of the second half was like I was on drugs; everything was happening in a very surreal and uncomfortable way and I couldn’t get a handle on it. Whimsical is one thing, but this… this was a whole new beast. I liked the writing style, I liked the different issues the author was trying to cover, but I wish some of the voices had been a bit clearer. I’m still perplexed about my overall feelings for this novel. Because of the great writing style and the fast pace and the different issues covered in this novel, I’m giving it a 3/5 stars. My rating would have been higher if the author had tightened things up a bit and explained things better near the end. But readers be warned: this is not your typical book and you might either love it or hate it … or feel caught in between like me.

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