You know that lovely, tantalizing sensation which trickles down the back of your tongue as you fall in love with a book by an author you’ve just discovered, and you suddenly realize that you may have an entire new oeuvre to work your way? That blissful sensation of knowing you rest in the hands of a master, and there’s a heck of a lot more where that came from? That was exactly my feeling upon picking up the latest novel by Richard Powers: In the Time of Our Singing .
While In the Time of Our Singing could most easily be summed up as a novel about race and music, it is somehow about neither music, nor race. It is, most simply, the story of an American family. Richard Powers has populated his book with an engaging cast of characters, thrown them into a period of US history full of upheaval and foment, and written about them with as much elegance and lyricism as any of the best American novelists.
The story unfolds in two time periods at once: In the mid 1940’s when Delia Daley, a young black woman with a talent for singing meets and falls in love with David Strom, a German Jewish Refugee and theoretical physicist. Delia faces the problems of communicating with someone who not only speaks a different language, comes from another culture and nationality, but is also so ensconced in his theoretical physics that he can barely see the world in front of him. Sometimes it seems that racial differences are the least of their problems.
The second story follows their children: the luminous Jonah, whose voice “could make heads of state repent”; little Ruth, who, out of frustration with the nearsightedness of her family, becomes a Black Panther; and dedicated Joseph, who tries desperately to bring his life into focus by following the path laid out by first one and then the other of his siblings.
Though the book is an elegiac meditation on the nature of time, the pleasures of music, and the social construction of blackness and whiteness and everything in between, the real strength of this novel is the richness of the characters. They're all deeply flawed individuals whose wounds are so familiar that through the course of the novel, they begin to feel like that part of yourself you always wish was better, kinder, happier.
In The Time of Our Singing is a long, slow, sumptuous read. It offers a compelling and unique portrait of a moment of American history we all think we know by heart. If anything the book is too slow. Powers is entranced by the genius of his own central motif about the nature of time and returns to it one too many times for my own taste. By the time he comes to his stunning revelation about how the past and the present collaborate each other into existence, I was so steeped in temporal theory that the final moment lost some of the power I’m sure he was intending. Still, it is hard to complain about having too much of a good thing. Indeed, these next months will surely find me luxuriating my way through everything else Powers has to offer and I feel confidant that most folks would be happy doing the same.