The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers

Roz Kaveney acclaims an epic novel of modern America that weaves ideas of race, music and science into a mysterious but satisfying tapestry

Saturday 15 March 2003 01:00 GMT

Early in Richard Powers's novel about race and music, physicist David Strom takes his sons to the Cloisters museum in New York and shows them the unicorn tapestry. Jonah sees it as a representation of a magnificent beast; Joseph sees its pain in captivity. David makes them look more closely. The tapestry is of knots, "Little knots, tied in the clothing of time".

Superficially, The Time of Our Singing is a deeply conventional novel about how family unites and divides us. These are important things, even though the stock in trade of mediocre fiction. The difficult thing is to find ways of talking about them that do not entangle your work in second-hand emotions. What Powers does, constantly, is embody technique in the events of the novel and the characters' endlessly fascinating talk. This is a book about smart people arguing about what it means to be that smart, and that gifted.

He also makes those events and that talk recursive, so things crop up in different forms throughout. Any detail may turn out to be the surface portion of a knot, tied below or sometimes tied in front of us. In one of the novel's chronologically earliest scenes, the lonely David and the self-disciplined, self-improving Delia meet in the crowd at the black soprano Marian Anderson's 1939 open-air concert in Washington. They recognise at once all they could be to each other, and all the reasons why it is impossible: 1939 is not a good time for a German Jewish exile and an African-American middle-class princess to fall in love.

What keeps them talking long enough to decide to make a life-long gamble is a small boy, lost in the crowd, whom they look after. The gradual revelation about the boy – one of the pleasures of the book's later stages – is earned by hard work and planning. Powers takes us through 50 years of activism, from the Anderson concert to Martin Luther King to the Million Man March, and through the particular take on 20th-century physics which is David's career. All of existence is made of knots or, to put it another way, of recursiveness; of closed, time-like curves. It is their gamble's start that guarantees they win it.

Much of the novel's music is about echoing and re-echoing: technique and improvisation and difficulty. As an ambitious student, Jonah thinks he is playing off teachers, who collude to teach him a lesson by making him learn a difficult aria twice with different tempi. At home, the Strom family plays a game of mutating musical quotations. This crops up endlessly – in Joseph's brief career as a jazz pianist and his nephew Kwame's development into something more than a gangsta rapper.

Some scenes happen out of order: it is only gradually that we learn about the quarrel with Delia's stiff-necked doctor father that lasts well into the next generation. And some happen more than once: we see the recital that makes tenor Jonah's name twice over. His brother and accompanist Joseph's words mean more the second time, because we know where the two gifted young men have come from. Sometimes, we are tricked into believing (along with the characters) things that are not true. When his sister Ruth and her Black Panther husband are on the run, Joseph assumes they have actually done something illegal.

Sometimes, important plot strands – like Joseph's affair with a Jersey Girl jazz singer – are left hanging, without resolution. Others, like Jonah's love affair with early music that haunts him as a vision of purity, are made complete. The same phrase means different things in different contexts: David's thought-experiments about other planets explicitly echo the "air from other planets" with which Schoenberg collapsed tonality.

This is a novel about tricks and turns; about the importance both of knowing who you are, and accepting that the knowledge involves you in complicity and complexity. Ruth becomes estranged from her father and brothers in her search for racial identity; she is not wrong, but neither are they. Jonah and Joseph are criticised by Ruth for their involvement with white European music. Their exploration of technique and tradition, and her radical anger, are united in one of the novel's most touching moments by a performance that joins everything that has gone before. United, because the different threads of their lives are knotted together in forgiving harmony.

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