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Thursday, May 5, 2011

'Love in the Years of Lunacy' by Mandy Sayer

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:
Sydney, 1942.

Pearl is eighteen, beautiful and impetuous. She plays saxophone in an all-girl jazz band at the Trocadero and occasionally sits in on underground gigs with her twin brother Martin, who also plays the sax. On one such evening black GI and jazz legend James Washington blows into her life, and nothing is ever the same again, especially not Pearl. A love story begins to unfold against the blacked-out nights and rumour-filled days of a city in the grip of war.

But public events are closing in on Pearl's private world. When James is shipped out to fight in New Guinea, she hatches a breathtaking plan to reunite with him. And then all hell breaks loose.

Moving, tender and audaciously original, Love in the Years of Lunacy is a love story with a haunting jazz soundtrack and a war story like no other.

A famous (and fictional) Indigenous crime writer has discovered a series of biographical tape recordings made by his favourite aunt, who died one year ago. Pearl paved the way for Australian jazz, and in her time she was lauded as a revolutionary musician – both for introducing the blues to Aussie shores, and for being a formidable female saxophone player.

The writer presses play on her recorded memoirs, and is transported back to Sydney in 1942...
American GI’s are in Sydney, helping to guard against the Jap invasion. Pearl and her twin brother, Martin, are two talented musicians playing for the army boys. One night Martin drags his reluctant sister to a Negro dance hall – and the promise of fast music, appreciative ears and wild nights. It is here that Pearl first meets Private James Washington – a black man from Louisiana who played sax on a New Orleans riverboat before getting shipped off to the army.

James is beautiful and he plays a mean sax, Pearl is smitten from his first riotous note. Soon the two embark on a sweet love affair – tempered with James’s unease at being seen with a white woman, and Pearl’s growing infatuation for her talented lover.

But reality soon impedes on Pearl and James’s love story. James is shipped off to war-torn New Guinea and his romance with Pearl seems destined to disintegrate into tragedy . . . until Martin and Pearl concoct a way to reunite the lovers, under the most awful and dangerous of guises.
‘Love in the Years of Lunacy’ is the latest novel from Vogel-winning author, Mandy Sayer.

I started this novel one morning, and had finished reading by the afternoon. Sayer’s words are just that kind of hypnotizing – like the cadence of a jazz song – starting smooth and lulling, and building to a scream.

Sydney in the 1940s is an interesting setting, and Pearl as a saxophone-playing army band member is equally fascinating. But Sayer elevates this lush story by including the romance of a white Australian woman with a black American soldier. There have been enough tales told about Aussie women falling for Yankee men during WWII, but Sayer’s tale is made more intense and hotly powerful for the racism she explores in this forbidden romance.

James is ingrained with the rules of the Deep South. Every time Pearl tries to show public affection or discuss their romance, James reminds her of the scars he has endured as a black man. His grandfather was hung from a tree, James has been run out of towns by shotgun-wielding mad men and as he constantly reminds Pearl; their relationship would be condemned in his country;
“I want to know where –” She paused, to search for the right words. “I want to know what this all . . . I mean, do you think you and I, after the war . . .” she swallowed, not knowing how to complete the sentence.
He sighed, and turned his face to her. “Honey, in America, what you and me are doing is illegal in thirty-three states.”
“But what if we got married?”
“Girl, ain’t you been listening to anything I been telling you? We’d be thrown in jail before we even got out of the church. Uncle Sam’s happy to fight fascism – long as it’s the German kind.”
All of these obstacles just make Pearl and James’s romance all the more lusciously epic. They have a genuine connection, at first through music and then through a deeply physical bond.
When James is shipped off to New Guinea, Pearl concocts an outlandish reconnection for the two of them. This particular plot spin was, at times, a little too fantastical for my liking. I thought James and Pearl’s complicated love affair, in the time of war, was interesting by itself. The New Guinea aside seemed a little overcooked and melodramatic. But that’s my only complaint in this otherwise flawless novel.

The jazz references are meticulous and worth further research. Sayer mentions everyone, from the greats to the little-known’s; Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Chu Berry, Buster Smith and Benny Goodman. The jazz provides real soul for this novel, as the initial spark between Pearl and James. But Sayer takes the time to give voice to the chords – her descriptions of James and Pearl’s playing is impressively detailed and full of heat.

Mandy Sayer takes ‘Lunacy’ to dramatic heights and sizzling lulls as she tells the war-time tale of a white Australian woman who falls for a black US soldier. Sayer’s words are resonant chords as she writes the scorching love story, peppered with sombre strikes of forbidden yearning.


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