Ron Chaplin asked if I would elaborate a bit on the race theme in Richard
Powers' "the Time of our Singing" without giving away too much of the
plot. Well, here goes with just a little of the plot.
It's a long book covering several generations and, in the background,
a swathe of modern history, yet it revolves round a single (actual
historical) event. In 1939 an attempt was made to arrange a concert
by Marian Anderson in Constitution Hall in Washington. The Daughters
of the American Revolution, owners of the hall, decided that the time
was not ready for what we would now call an African American, however
distinguished, to appear in the hall. "Sometime in the future" writes
the narrator of the novel, "Or shortly thereafter". So, with the support
of Mrs Roosevelt, Marian Anderson gave a free concert at the Lincoln
Amongst the crowd of 75,000 is, in the novel, a young woman, Delia, an
aspiring singer, not even given an audition by the conservatory, thanks
to racial discrimination. Marian Anderson is her role model. Her eyes
meet those of a young man, David Strom, a Jewish refugee from Nazi
Germany, a colleague of Einstein working on the general theory of
relativity: (a useless activity, like music, he says ; and we wonder).
It is love at first first sight.
They bring up their children in an intense musical atmosphere, singing
together every day (so the title) and protecting them, they thought,
from a harsh world of discrimination. Actually, says the narrator,
their son Joseph, a pianist, we were protecting them.
Powers, in the narrative by Joseph Strom, uses language in a rhapsodic
and musical way to explore the themes of the power of music, time,
mathematics, and racial identity. It is clever, discursive, and
thought-provoking, never pretentious, and certainly never dull.