Top critical review
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Good writer, great concept, serious flaw
on November 14, 2011
Ms. Egugyan's literary talent is evident in this book. She is, as the critics like to say, in control of her work. And the concept of developing a novel set among (mostly) black jazz musicians in Germany and France in the immediate pre-WWII days is brilliant. But despite these qualities, it doesn't really work.
The plot has been spelled out here by other reviewers, so there is no need to replicate it. I agree that the inclusion of Louis Armstrong added little to the story, and the pivotal character, Hiero, is never really developed although he morphs into a wide icon at the end. For most of the book he is more a sullen juvenile than anyone we can care about.
The major flaw is the author''s apparent lack of familiarity with jazz of any era, especially her inability to express the mood of the musicians and the impact of the music itself. This is hardly unique to her, but it seemed to me that it would be totally necessary in order to justify the personalities and actions of the characters. Jazz, after all, is the principal motivator of both the plot and characters. Nothing in the book communicates the passion they feel (or should) for their music; the author's attempts to describe their playing is embarrassing in its ineptness. As a musician I have never heard a trumpeter describe his or her possessing 'pistons'; they are always valves. And it is impossible, by his words, to believe the narrator actually played a bass fiddle (my instrument), as claimed in the story.
Small points? Maybe. But verisimilitude is vital to any story, especially one as era- and culture-specific as this.
I know the book has won major awards and congratulations to the author for them. But if you know as much as the author should know about one of the two primary subjects (jazz and the Nazis), it's a disappointment.