Sunday, November 28, 2010

Music to my ears

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn

Reviewed by Pam Spence

If there were one book I had to choose to give to the person I cherished the most in the world this holiday season, I would chose Jane Mendelsohn’s American Music (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). The book came into my life from my long time best friend who called me and told me she had read the most incredible book – but she couldn’t send me her copy because she could not let it out of her possession. She had ordered the book for me, however, and was having it sent directly. Since we swap books as readily as we swapped sweaters in high school, I was intrigued.

American Music did not disappoint: it is, quite simply, a stunning accomplishment of story and style. The story is built around two characters: Milo, a severely wounded soldier from the Iraqi war, languishing in a veterans’ hospital; and Honor, a young physical therapist who comes to treat him. As Honor begins to work on Milo’s ruined body, stories and images arise in both of their consciousnesses—unbidden, mysterious and compelling.

The reader is required to “go with the flow” and allow these wonderful stories to unfold. Initially, one can’t quite grasp whose stories they are, what they signify and how they are related. How does this young couple in the ‘30s relate to this sultan’s beautiful concubine in the seventeenth century, for instance? And what about the young wife who sits in the courtroom watching her husband on trial during the Viet Nam War era - how does she fit in? As the novel progresses, however, these threads are woven into a magical tapestry of history, dream, desire and heartbreak.

American Music does not readily fit any category of fiction: it hints at magical realism and yet feels like an entirely American form - organized, as it is, around the central motif of jazz. It is a dream, a dance, a masterpiece.

Mendelsohn has a rare grace with words. The language and imagery are sumptuous yet entirely subtle. You are enthralled – as you might be if you sat at the feet of Scheherazade as she spun her tales to the king in the Arabian Nights. After I finished this book, I could not look at another book for a week or more, not wanting to diminish the joy I felt from this encounter.

Mendelsohn is also the author of I Was Amelia Earhart and Innocence.

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