A magnificent, multifaceted novel about a supremely gifted -- and divided -- family, set against the backdrop of postwar America
On Easter day, 1939, at Marian Anderson's epochal concert on the Washington Mall, David Strom, a German Jewish émigré scientist, meets Delia Daley, a young Philadelphia Negro studying to be a singer. Their mutual love of music draws them together, and--against all odds and better judgment--they marry. They vow to raise their children beyond time, beyond identity, steeped in song. But their three children must survive America's brutal here and now. Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth grow up during the Civil Rights era, come of age in the violent 1960s, and live out adulthood in the racially retrenched late century. Jonah, the eldest, "whose voice could make heads of state repent," follows a life in his parents' beloved classical music. Ruth, the youngest, chooses a militant activism and repudiates the white culture her brother represents. Joseph, the middle child and the narrator of this generational tale, struggles to remain connected to them both.
The Time of Our Singing is a story of self-invention, allegiance, race, cultural ownership, the compromised power of music, and the tangled loops of time that rewrite all belonging.
Powers (Plowing the Dark, etc.) has generated considerable excitement as a novelist of ideas, but as a creator of characters, he is on shakier ground. Here he confronts his weaknesses head-on, crafting a hefty family saga that attempts to probe generational conflicts, sibling rivalries and racial identity. The book follows the mixed-race Strom family through much of the 20th century, from 1939 when German-Jewish physicist David Strom meets Delia Daley, a black, classically trained singer from Philadelphia through the 1990s. The couple marries and has three children: eldest son Jonah, a charismatic, egotistical singing prodigy; Joseph, his self-sacrificing accompanist; and Ruth, the rebel of the family, who becomes a militant black activist. There are two separate strands to the story: one is a third-person chronicle of David and Delia's relationship through the 1940s; the other, narrated by Joseph, is about the brothers' education in the nearly all-white world of classical music and their experience of the civil rights movement as the rest of the country grudgingly catches up to the Stroms' radical experiment. Powers's premise is intriguing, and the plot's architecture is impressive, informed by the notion, from physics, of space-time wrinkles and time curves. Missing, however, are the pulse-quickening vintage-Powers moments in which his discussions of technology and science open up profound existential quandaries. Most of the book is taken up with a prolonged, overdetermined and off-key examination of family relationships and identity struggles. Narrator Joseph is supposed to be eclipsed by his brother, but Powers overshoots the mark: for half the book, Joseph is little more than a pair of eyes and ears. Powers's depiction of how public events filter into individual consciousness can also be surprisingly unimaginative; Joseph periodically runs down a list of current events, using stale, iconic imagery ("our hatless boy president plays touch football on the White House lawn"). Powers deserves credit for taking a risk, but his own experiment reveals his startling tone deafness to the subtle inflections of human experience.