Review: Love in the Years of Lunacy by Mandy Sayer
Reading Mandy Sayer’s Love in the Years of Lunacy was almost like reading two different novels. The first was a fascinating look at wartime Sydney, Australia. The second was an odyssey into the implausible.
Set in 1942, Love in the Years of Lunacy is told mostly from the point of view of eighteen year old Pearl, a bit of a wild-child jazz musician. She plays saxophone in an all-girl band and one night, while playing in an underground club, she meets James Washington, an African-American GI and phenomenal musician. The two quickly begin a whirlwind romance until that is cut short by the news that James is being shipped out to fight in New Guinea. Pearl does something incredibly impulsive/batshit crazy to reunite with James.
The beginning of Love in the Years of Lunacy introduces its odd narrative structure—one often used in historical fiction that rarely works for me.
In opens with a writer (it’s always a writer—and in this case the writer name-checks the Australian publisher of Love in the Years of Lunacy as his publisher) in modern day discovering a recording of a story told by his aunt (Pearl), instructing him to novelize her story so that it can be shared—these sections are told in first person. Then it switches to the 1940s and is written in third person, but from Pearl’s point-of-view. This is a narrative style that really bothers me.
I’m trying to look on the positive side. I guess writing this book has allowed me to understand the complexities of [Pearl] and my background better than I ever have before and, by doing so, I begin to understand myself more clearly—a person who’s never felt completely at home…
It wasn’t until I read this book that I was able to really get my head around why this style of storytelling irks me, but I’ve finally hit on it: by framing a story of a historical figure around a contemporary person’s “discovery” it feels as if the main historical story is diminished. Why can’t a historical narrative stand on its own? In this novel there are some small things related to identity that are relevant to the contemporary discover-er, but really, Love in the Years of Lunacy was not better because of those elements. (And, honestly, they kind of troubled me—see my spoiler discussion here.)
I am fairly certain, that if the novel was told in a straightforward manner, I would have enjoyed it far more.
Regardless of this frustrating structure, I was captivated by Pearl and James’ story amidst that backdrop of wartime Sydney.
I was vaguely aware of Americans being stationed in Australia at that time, but I didn’t realize what an intense environment it was, being essentially in the backyard of the the fighting in the Pacific. I hadn’t realized that Sydney Harbo/ur was bombed and that Australians faced air raid sirens just as they did in Europe. Sayers paints a brilliant picture of Sydney during this time. People are scared, but there’s also a seize the day feeling, so music abounds, young people live in the moment, it’s a new era and it’s wild and vibrant.
The enemy could attack at any moment. “They’d bloody well better not!” she said to the fruit stall owner on Macleay Street who was rushing to pack up, throwing his produce into wooden crates. She certainly didn’t want a bunch of invaders—or, indeed, anyone—interrupting her romance with Private James Washington.
James and Pearl’s romance is emblematic of this time, and it’s cemented literally against the backdrop of the bombing of the harbo/ur. But it’s, as you would imagine, not a rosy, perfect situation. Being African-American, James is a second-class citizen in the U.S. Army. And the same tensions exist when the two are together in Sydney. But when they’re alone together, playing music together, it feels like time could freeze.
Unfortunately, the story unraveled for me once James is shipped off to fight in New Guinea.
I can say little about what happens because it would ruin half of the plot of the book. However, suffice to say, it skirts believability and transformed Pearl from a endearing, if naive, 18-year old to a character whom I spent some time thinking was intentionally drawn as losing grasp of her sanity. I still am unsure as to whether or not this was intentional or not (I suspect not), but it wasn’t what I expected—and not in a good way. I found myself slogging through the many chapters detailing Pearl’s bold efforts to reunite with James, and it took quite a bit of self-control to not simply skip ahead to learn the outcome to the pair’s story. [I’ve written more about this in the spoiler area.]
Ultimately, the focus on Pearl’s implusive, self-centered actions dimished what really resonated with me: James’ story.
Because Love in the Years of Lunacy is told soley from Pearl’s point-of-view (despite that it’s third-person), much of his story is told in chunks of dialog and narrative backstory that both intrigued and frustrated me.
James’s eyes suddenly flared. “You know, my granddaddy got hanged from a tree in the Bogalusa city park?” She was shocked into silence. He began balling and releas-ing one fist against the table, as if he were warming up for a boxing match.
Finally she asked him, “Why?” a drunk lurched out of the toilet and steadied himself against the piano.
James sighed. He leaned across the table. “Because he whistled at a white girl who passed him on the street.”
Pearl gaped at him. What he had just told her seemed impossible. What about the justice system? What about the police? James had a sour look on his face, as if he just swallowed something bitter. He took a sip of water, then held the glass with two hands and gazed into it intently.
“Last time I toured the South,” he said, “I was with Benny Goodman’s band. Me and the bass player, Herschel evans, we were the only negroes in the group. and every restaurant the band stopped at, me and Herschel always had to eat in the kitchen.”
James had an incredible story prior to his arrival in Australia, and his time in Sydney and subsequent relationship with Pearl is exciting and scary and remarkable. But, because Pearl is selfish and immature, the reader doesn’t get to know him. I kept hoping for more of his story, of learning what his life was like when Pearl wasn’t around, of what his dreams were. But, Love in the Years of Lunacy deprives its readers of more about the strongest characters, and that was profoundly disappointing.
Regardless of my many reservations about this novel, it’s one I would still recommend to some readers.
The first group I can see really enjoying this is actually YA readers (this is an adult novel). It has a strong coming-of-age theme that makes the first half of Love in the Years of Lunacy incredibly memorable. The other group would be fans of not-too-dense historical fiction. The setting is extremely well-developed—I could truly feel what it must have been like to live in Sydney during the 1940s and the setting and historical aspects of the novel are not “info-dumpy” at all. I just wish this vitality had carried through to the character development as well.
FNL Character Rating: Waverly Grady
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Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.