White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Singing the blues…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Seth and Carter meet at college, they discover a shared appreciation for music – not as musicians, but as listeners and producers. Seth has the technical skills and Carter’s family is rich, so they’re able to set up their own studio. Loving the distinctive sound of vinyl, Carter eventually works his way back in time till he has become a knowledgeable collector of old 78s, especially blues. Seth too had gone on a musical trip back in time, during a period in his teens after his mother died, when he isolated himself from the world in his room and escaped into the world of early records. But Seth had reached a point where he believed he could hear ghosts behind the music…

This is another of these books that is quite hard to review because it only slowly reveals where it’s heading, and the journey is probably better the less you know going in. It’s also very distinctly a book of two halves, and other reviews I’ve read suggest that people who love the first half are disappointed with the second, and vice versa. I’m lucky in that I vastly preferred the second half, so that my final opinion of the book was much higher than it had been at the halfway point. I’ll try to give you an idea of it without spoilers, so forgive me if this review is rather vague.

.Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice travelling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.

The first half is taken up with the boys, later young men, meeting and becoming friends and then business partners. Seth is the narrator and he tells about how he records street sounds while he’s wandering about, often finding when he listens back to them that he can hear things he wasn’t aware of at the time. At first, this is normal stuff – the kind of sounds we all tune out as we pass through noisy places. But one day he discovers that he has recorded a man singing an old blues song – he remembers the man singing a line or two but not the whole song. This is the beginning of a train of ever stranger things that happen until eventually the narrative becomes fractured and disjointed, as the book moves further from reality into a kind of weird, hallucinatory stage in the second half.

The first half contains a lot of music jargon, production techniques, comparisons of analogue and digital, and so on; and I frankly found it dragged. But once it began talking about early blues musicians, I found my interest reviving a little, especially since it sent me off to youtube to listen to many of the recordings Kunzru mentions. Even so, for too long I found I didn’t really have a feel for where the book was heading.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because the second half not only gives the book its ultimate meaning, but as Seth’s life, or perhaps mind, or perhaps both, spiral out of control, I loved what Kunzru does with the writing. It becomes almost like reading a vivid dream – short sentences giving us a glimpse of a thing or snatching at a sound, then moving wildly away to the next thing. Often just a few words create a picture in the mind. It becomes disorientating and strangely disturbing after a bit, and I found it totally compelling. The narrative shifts around in space and time, in reality and illusion (delusion?), and the story gradually gets darker and more violent. It’s only towards the end that the destination becomes clear, and only then that I was able to truly appreciate how each stage, each strand, had added to the depth beneath the surface words – not unlike listening to the analogue rather than the digital.

.Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day.
….– The kooks, there are more of them all the time.
….– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman.
….Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats.
….I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.

Hari Kunzru

And, in the end, it’s about race, and cultural appropriation, and race guilt. About how music, specifically recordings, can let us visit the past. How acquisition can become more important than art – ownership and control above appreciation. There are references to blackface and minstrelsy, and white tourism of black history. The last chapter becomes a little polemical for my taste, but until that point I felt the messages were handled with both surface subtlety and underlying power, and a great deal of originality. And it has stayed in my mind in the couple of weeks since I finished it, growing in stature the more it settles, so that, despite the fact that it took me a while to get into it, I now feel that the long first half was necessary to create the foundation for the weirdly wonderful second half. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link



33 thoughts on “White Tears by Hari Kunzru

  1. I find this absolutely compelling as I have extensive experience of recording studios and music engineering and a great interest in the technical side, especially the analogue side of things. The excerpt about the recording of the woman singing on the porch had me captivated, I love those ‘organic’ recordings, outside of the sterile environment of a vocal booth. And I have myself recorded street sounds and been amazed at what I heard when I played them back in the studio. This is a definite read for me, FF 🙂

    • I think you’ll enjoy it then! Some of it was a bit jargony for me, but I loved the street sounds stuff too, and I love the way he writes. As it spiralled into weirdness in the second half, he took me with him completely and you know I’m not always good at crossing that credibility line. And as he leapt back and forwards and all over the place in time and location, he managed to keep me knowing where we were just by his brilliant use of tense and description – the more I think about it really, the more I admire it – enjoy! It’s one I’m sure I’ll read again.

  2. Your review has really intrigued me: I want to get through the first half of the book to the fascination of the second half too; even though I don’t have the book … yet. I don’t think I can hold out!

    • I loved the second half enough that it really made me reassess the first half after I finished. I think what I love about Kunzru is that he takes me well outside what would normally be my comfort zone, but he’s so skilled I don’t find my quizzical eyebrow rising. He’s not poetic exactly, but he can conjure up an image with just a phrase or a rhythm – hope you enjoy it, if you get a chance to read it! 😀

      • I’ve just finished reading White Tears and I loved the whole book: both halves of the book gave me different experiences and satisfactions. I was interested in Seth’s focus on abstracted environmental sounds and how this obsession was also a refuge for him (reminding me of some young people I have met who have digital obsessions which both alienate them from others and provide interest and solace). I was really enthralled by the second part of the story with its multiple layers, including selling one’s soul to the devil and the resonances across generations of cultural wrongs and crimes. Thanks FF for this recommendation!

        • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, underrunner! One of the pitfalls of reviewing is that sometimes I find I’m expressing my opinion before a book has really had time to settle. I wish I could leave it a few weeks but my memory for detail is so bad it would become impossible. With this one it grew in stature over the few months after I’d read it, and I would now retract some of my criticism of the first half – it might have felt a bit draggy when I was reading it, but it has left as many images as the wonderfully weird second half. I think it was Madame Bibi who put the idea in my head that the first half of the book may have been the A side of the record while the second – B side – was the bit they were all searching for. I’m still not sure that’s what he intended but I find it an intriguing idea. His earlier book, Gods Without Men, had a similar impact on me – I suspect you’d like that one too… 🙂

  3. Oh, this sounds really intriguing, FictionFan! I love music, so I’d probably find that aspect interesting. But the rest of it has gotten me intrigued, too. It sounds like one of those books, too, that’s hard to but into a specific category, and that can mean a rich experience reading. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • I loved all the stuff about the blues although the more technical side of music production left me cold – but there wasn’t an excessive amount of it. And, as often happens with a book that doesn’t grab me straight away, when I looked back after finishing I could see why he’d done it the way he did. I’ve waited six years for him to produce this book, so I’m glad it was worth the wait… 😉

  4. After your recommendation and Jenny’s (Reading The End) I am excited to read this! I love a book that goes in strange directions and becomes something else entirely. Terrific review that didn’t give too much away!

    • Oh, I must pop off and find Jenny’s – a blog I don’t know, so thanks for the introduction! Thank you – sometimes books just have to be allowed to reveal themselves, I think, but that can make them tricky to review – this is definitely a “read it for yourself” kind of book, if you know what I mean… 😀

    • I enjoyed being sent off to youtube to listen to lots of people I’d never heard of before – it all added to the experience of reading the book. Sometimes the internet is great… 🙂

    • I’d definitely recommend this one – I just read that other review myself, and though as usual I’ve concentrated more on the political messages (because that’s the kind of person I am!), I agree that it’s also a terrifying ghost story! If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

  5. This one sounds most intriguing. You’ve piqued my interest by admitting there are two different halves of this book, without giving away anything that would spoil the storyline. Hmm, a definite possibility, drat it all, ha!

    • This is definitely one I’d recommend! Yes, I’ve kinda laughed at the reviews of it – almost everyone is saying either “loved the first half” or “loved the second half” – just goes to show how different they are. But I do think, now I’ve finished it, that the first half sets the basic story up for the second half to then take it off in unexpected directions… 🙂

    • I think you might like this one – the quality of the writing kept me with him even when it all got weird in the second half, and you know I’m not always a huge fan of weird! But I had lots of fun listening to ancient blues on youtube while reading – must say sometimes the internet is wonderful!

  6. This does sound like an intriguing read and as you’ve confirmed that you have to be fairly vague has just piqued my interest further. I’m not sure that I’d enjoy the music production bit too much but it sounds as if that doesn’t overwhelm the main storyline. One for me to keep my eye out for I think!

    • The music production bit didn’t grab me at all, but by the time I finished I could sorta see why the first half had been important to set up the basis for the second half to jump off from – sorry, I know that’s a bit vague again, but I do think this is one that benefits from not knowing too much going in. If you ever do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

    • I was going to say no, but then I began to wonder! I don’t think he’d planned it quite that way, but as it turns out that’s a neat theory given a particular plot point (which unfortunately I can’t reveal!). An intriguing question, which I shall mull over… 😀

  7. Would this work as an audio book, with the music and recordings played where they fit into the story? I’m actively looking out for this book, your review has left me even more desperate to read this.

    • I think that’s a brilliant idea! I’ve listened to a couple of fairly inventive audiobooks recently, but none that have done that sort of thing – they definitely should! I must admit I spent a lot of time with youtube playing the blues in the background while reading… 😀

  8. I really like that detail about the character knowing how a certain ghost sounds based on the rhythm of his steps, and that the ghost is there all day, but leaves the character alone at night….even though the ghost is still there. Haunting. The writing seemed a bit like Shirley Jackson, to me.

    • The ghostly stuff is great – especially since you don’t really know if it is ghostly or simply some kind of delusion. You’re right – in that sense there is a kind of Jackson vibe, though I must say this book becomes a lot darker and has more violence in it than any of the Jacksons I’ve read so far…

    • Thank you! I must admit I loved this one, and unlike a lot of what I read it’s stayed in my mind – always the sign of a really good book for me… or a really bad one! 😉

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