The Time of Our Singing
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
On Easter day, 1939, at Marian Anderson’s epochal concert on the Washington Mall, David Strom, a German Jewish émigré scientist, meets Delia Daley, a young Philadelphia Negro studying to be a singer. Their mutual love of music draws them together, and—against all odds and better judgment—they marry. They vow to raise their children beyond time, beyond identity, steeped in song. But their three children must survive America’s brutal here and now. Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth grow up during the Civil Rights era, come of age in the violent 1960s, and live out adulthood in the racially retrenched late century. Jonah, the eldest, “whose voice could make heads of state repent,” follows a life in his parents’ beloved classical music. Ruth, the youngest, chooses a militant activism and repudiates the white culture her brother represents. Joseph, the middle child and the narrator of this generational tale, struggles to remain connected to them both.
The Time of Our Singing is a story of self-invention, allegiance, race, cultural ownership, the compromised power of music, and the tangled loops of time that rewrite all belonging.
In some respects, Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing is just a big, absorbing drama about an American family, with the typical ingredients of an immigrant parent and some social obstacles—in this case, a biracial marriage in the Civil Rights era—to be overcome by the talented children. But Powers’s lyrical gifts lift this material far above its familiar subject matter. His descriptions of music alone will transport the reader. The Strom family were raised with this common language: “Our parents’ Crazed Quotations game played on the notion that every moment’s tune had all history’s music box for its counterpoint. On any evening in Hamilton Heights, we could jump from organum to atonality without any hint of all the centuries that had died fiery deaths between them.” The central figure of this novel is the dazzling Jonah, who makes a life from singing, and who may be the only person around him who regards his racial heritage as irrelevant to his ambitions. Powers’s is such a fertile writer, however, that he can’t stay with any single story, but plunges into pages and pages of family and social histories. The result is a rambling, resonant, fearless novel that pulls the reader along in its wake. —Regina Marler