National Jewish Book Award Winner
The New York Times -bestselling author of A Fierce Radiance and City of Light returns with a new powerful and passionate novel--inspired by historical events--about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.Read more...
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National Jewish Book Award Winner
The New York Times-bestselling author of A Fierce Radiance and City of Light returns with a new powerful and passionate novel--inspired by historical events--about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.
In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him.
In America in 2010, Henry's niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family's history--and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past.
In Berlin, Germany, in 1783, amid the city's glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach's son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come.
Interweaving the stories of Susanna and Sara, and their families, And After the Fire traverses over two hundred years of history, from the eighteenth century through the Holocaust and into today, seamlessly melding past and present, real and imagined. Lauren Belfer's deeply researched, evocative, and compelling narrative resonates with emotion and immediacy.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-04-25
- Reviewer: Staff
In Belfer's compelling third novel, an American soldier in 1945 Germany unknowingly purloins a controversial unpublished cantata by the great Johann Sebastian Bach, and it ends up in the hands of the soldier's niece, Susanna Kessler, upon his death. The journey of this manuscript, with lyrics based on one of Martin Luther's anti-Jewish screeds, from Sara Itzig Levy—a Jewish student of Bach's eldest son and the real-life budding doyenne of Berlin's upper echelons—to America is interspersed with Susanna's own inner trajectory to finding normalcy and love in her life after being raped. The author's strengths lie in the historical passages, starting with the 1780s when Sara receives the cantata as a young woman, and continuing through her rise in society, her subsequent marriage, and her confidential gift of the manuscript to her beloved niece's daughter, Fanny (sister to Felix Mendelssohn). Fanny leaves it in a piano bench, where it's discovered by Susanna's uncle. Belfer's (A Fierce Radiance) comprehensive research brings depth and veracity to the novel, intertwining real-life figures and events from the past with the modern-day story and detailing the strong currents of anti-Semitism that have existed in Germany for centuries. The people in Susanna's life, as well as the contemporary situations Belfer portrays, are not as strongly drawn, and the passages about romance and sexual attraction in both the modern and historic realms never quite work. Nevertheless, this is an immersive, page-turning story emboldened by historical fact and a rich imagination. (May)
Hidden turns of Jewish history
What would you do if you discovered a lost masterpiece that revealed the artist’s extreme prejudice? Or survived a war only to find yourself participating in political violence?
Ethical dilemmas and twists and turns of Jewish history are at the core of two new novels by Lauren Belfer and Stewart O’Nan.
Belfer’s sprawling novel And After the Fire spans two continents and several centuries and concerns a fictional music manuscript. It opens as an American soldier in Weimar grabs some sheet music to take home as a souvenir. After his death decades later, his niece, Susanna Kessler, discovers a cryptic note and what appears to be an unknown Bach cantata: one with lyrics influenced by an anti-Semitic sermon. Susanna must weigh the pros and cons of publicizing a work whose contents, by any standard, are offensive. Her epic search for the manuscript’s original owners leads her from New York’s rare book libraries to present-day Germany. She also encounters two historians who vie for the manuscript—as well as her romantic attentions.
Susanna’s journey is interspersed with the history of the manuscript itself. Originally a gift from Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedrich to his most talented pupil, Sara Itzig Levy, the cantata remained in the Levy family’s hands over many turbulent decades. Though the manuscript is a fiction, Levy is not: The daughter of a prominent Jewish banker, she was the aunt of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn and at the forefront of salon culture during the Enlightenment.
And After the Fire is sprinkled with other real-life historical figures, and Belfer is adept at revealing the complex politics and sentiments, including the religious biases, of 18th-century Europe. The important questions Belfer poses regarding the ethical complexities of art are engrossing, though her characters never come fully to life.
Stewart O’Nan’s gripping City of Secrets is also a moral thriller, but on a much different scale. It is tightly focused in time and place; the action takes place over the winter of 1946 and follows a handful of post-World War II refugees fighting for the creation of Israel against both Arab attack and Britain’s mandates. Recalling the novels of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, City of Secrets has a taut, noir-like flavor. Like O’Nan’s earlier novels, it features a displaced hero who, despite everything, still believes his life has purpose.
City of Secrets follows Brand, a Latvian whose mechanical skills allowed him to survive the death camps, though he lost everything else. Brand slipped easily into Jerusalem, his new identity and job provided by the Jewish underground. Spending his days as a taxi driver taking tourists to religious sites, he remains loyal to the members of his Haganah cell, accepting missions that grow ever more dangerous under the cell’s elusive leader, Asher. By the time Brand realizes what’s at stake, it is almost too late.
These compelling stories use history as a lens to examine issues that are still with us today.