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Richard Powers: The Time of Our Singing

The title of the book indicates two of the main three themes of this long novel. The first is about time, specifically time’s arrow and the (possible) reversibility of time. The second is about singing. The third, not mentioned in the title, and probably the key theme of the book, is racism. That Richard Powers is one of the foremost and most intelligent writers of fiction in the United States today is, I think, widely, if not universally accepted. This novel only confirms this. It is not his best work by any means but still a very fine work.

David Strom is a German Jewish refugee, who has come to the United States sometime before World War II. He is working in experimental physics, with the likes of Einstein, Dirac and Gödel, and, of course, one of his key subjects is time and the possibility of the reversibility of time and showing that past time and future time can and do merge. This becomes an issue not only for David Strom, the physicist, but also for David Strom and his family. Powers uses this as a way of telling his story, by jumping backwards and forwards through time. As Strom is interested in music, left-wing in his political views and opposed to racism, he attends Marian Anderson’s famous 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert. While there, he meets Delia Daley, a young black woman from Philadelphia. He is immediately taken with her and they start a relationship, after some persuasion on his part. What brings them together as much as anything else is a lost black boy, whom they look after till he finds his family. This will turn out to be far more significant than we realise. Naturally, in 1939, both blacks and whites are opposed to their relationship but they eventually marry. He has lost contact with his family in Europe. They subsequently have some but not much contact with her family. The couple have three children. The oldest is Jonah, who is soon to become a singing prodigy. Joseph, the second, is his brother’s accompanist and the narrator of the story, and the youngest is Ruth, who will become more involved in race politics.

The story jumps backwards and forwards. We know early on, for example, that, as Joseph is telling his tale, Jonah is already dead. We only learn about the courtship of David and Delia later on, though we know that they are married. But we do know that Jonah has become a celebrated singer. We follow his successful career. It all starts when they are children, with both parents encouraging and teaching their children and family singing sessions are common. All three children seem to have inherited their parents’ gift for music. Joseph becomes a competent singer and musician and will accompany his brother. Ruth is perfect at mimicking other singers. The two boys, in particular, are encouraged and taught but, being black, find difficulty in getting into a suitable conservatory, till one run by an expatriate Hungarian takes them. Jonah does well at the school and will eventually go on to the Juilliard, accompanied, as always, by his brother. With various ups and downs and false starts, he will go on to make a career in music as a singer, giving concerts, making records and then graduating to opera, Joseph, as always, advising and accompanying his brother. Only later will they go their own separate ways.

But this novel is about racism as much if not more than about singing and time’s arrow. The books starts, as stated, with the Marian Anderson Concert and ends with the Million Man March, both key events in African-American history in the United States and both also very key to the plot of this novel. Powers spares us little in his portrayal of the history of racism towards African-Americans since the 1930s, even though the Stroms are spared a certain amount. Indeed, one of the themes of this book may be that you cannot avoid who you are and have to fight for your people. Passing is not the answer. David and Delia, of course, suffer racial abuse when they date and marry. They find it difficult to get accommodation, when they are first married and will face abuse from others. The boys get it at school and when they try to go to conservatory. They will continue to get it throughout their lives. They are often asked, But what are you? Jonah always has a smart answer but Joseph takes it more to heart. But, on many occasions, they do try and avoid the issue, focusing on their music. Powers, however, gives us the full picture, from the story of Emmett Till to the race riots of the Sixties. Powers spares us few details of the issues faced by blacks in the United States. Surprisingly, the anti-Semitism that was also prevalent in the United States is touched on but only lightly. Being dark-skinned, the boys suffer much more from racism towards blacks than racism towards Jews. When things are getting bad in the Sixties – and Powers gives us the full story, in case we have forgotten – Jonah and Joseph tend to keep away, till Jonah starts being fascinated by the whole issue and they even get inadvertently involved in a riot. Ruth is a different story, as she joins the Black Panthers and she and her husband will be very involved in fighting for justice and, naturally, having to deal with the white power structure.

It is a long book – some 630 pages in the hardback US edition – so Powers can and does go into some detail about the music and singing, about the key relationships and about the racist history of the United States, both generally and as witnessed by the Stroms. Can a white man fully show and experience what racism really means to its victims, the way, say, Baldwin, Wright and Ellison can? I will obviously have to leave an African-American commentator to determine that, though I imagine that some would certainly criticise Powers’ approach. Nevertheless, it is very brave of him to take on such a difficult subject and confront it head on and, once again, we have a first-rate novel from one of the foremost novelists in the United States.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Farrar Straus & Giroux