This is quite some novel. The quote that prefaces White Tears ends with the line ‘I didn’t know right from wrong’ and somehow the story of Seth, a recording engineer obsessed with sound, who makes his own recording equipment sensitive enough to pick up voices from the past, unfolds into a tale that brings history into the present forcing old wrongs out into the light in a way that offers no redemption. What has happened is always happening, remnants of old sound waves reverberating around us, waiting for us to tune into their frequency.
So whilst the novel is about music, most specifically the blues, it is also about race and the history of black slavery and oppression in America. The white tears are those shed by the privileged, desperate to make up for the behaviour of their ancestors but unwilling or unable to part with their winnings.
The old song Seth picks up on his equipment pours the past into his ears and those of his partner, Carter, the youngest of the rich and influential Wallace family who built their wealth in the South through the labour of the unfairly imprisoned or badly paid black man. Longing to hear authentic sound, the two young men find themselves living the authentic suffering that infuses the blues they love so much.
White Tears is part detective story, part cautionary tale and a definite new contributor to the great American novel. From the first pages I felt myself drawn in, there was a feeling of Paul Auster-like biblical puzzle, and a love of language, a respect for the sound of words that draws you through some dark and magical storylines.
By the end my teeth are on edge, my heart has worked its way into my mouth, and I no longer know what is right or wrong, how any of us can hope to understand or atone for a past whose black tunes sing right out of our white noise.
White Tears is an impressive and frightening novel that wonders when we’ll be able to step inside a human skin and forget its colour; when we’ll be able to protect the dispossessed rather than those with money. However we try to bury the wrongs of the past, in White Tears it can never be fully erased, its angry buzzing always whining at the edges of our conscious hearing.
Next week I’m reviewing Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.