All that jazz: A review of Mandy Sayer's 'Love in the Years of Lunacy'

african kings

While I admit to being well on my way to becoming a cynical New Yorker — perhaps more still, having been without electricity  or heat for the past four days, bearing witness to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy on New York and surrounding communities — still,  Mandy Sayer’s new book, Love in the Years Lunacy (bravely echoing Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera) serves up the kind of romance and optimism that, in any circumstance, can be somewhat difficult to relate to, yet makes the perfect confection for a Friday night spent in bed by candlelight.

Set in Australia in 1942, in the thick of World War II, Lunacy centers on the interracial love story between Pearl — a young, white Australian woman who plays the saxophone in an all-girl jazz band — and James, a black American GI who shares her love for jazz and the saxophone. There is much to be said for the atmospheric setting of this taboo love affair, unfolding in the blacked out alleys, bomb ravaged cityscapes, and glittering jazz nightclubs of Sydney that Sayer uses, with some success, to lend her story the sleek stylings of noir. Suffice to say, if you’re into World War II dramas there is a lot you will find of interest here.

RELATED: Zadie Smith’s novel ‘NW’ explores black upward mobility

Combating the racism of the time, and the current of warfare along which James is carried (who is caught in the crosshairs of being in love versus what is realistic), Pearl, driven by her passion for James embarks on an unstoppable journey to be reunited with him. (James is transferred to New Guinea during the early stages of their love affair.) This… wait for it… involves Pearl assuming her twin brother’s identity, and switching places with him. Over the course of this gender bending odyssey Pearl sees the inside of a sanatorium, experiences the physical exertion of army life trekking through the wilderness of New Guinea, and ultimately faces the horror and violence of the frontline.

The story revolves around several interesting themes. Music as an art form, but specifically as a cross-cultural mode of communication, not only bringing Pearl and James together despite their largely divergent cultural backgrounds and experiences, but also literally providing a lifeline to starving and diseased soldiers (both allies and enemies) on the front line, who find comfort and humanity in the music that the traveling show Pearl joins brings to the desolate military camps.

 also, of course, explores racist attitudes of the time period, probing, somewhat naively, at the  irony of a U.S. Armed Forces willing to send its African-American populous off to Australia to die, but not valuing their lives enough to let them, well, live — equally and with the ability to choose, for instance, to marry a white, Australian woman. Although James has perhaps the most to lose, these themes, and the implications of engaging in an interracial romance are explored largely from Pearl’s perspective.

While Lunacy is definitely entertaining,  as a novel it feels at times like the vaudevillesque show that Pearl plays in, well-meaning and fun, but, at times, relying too much on cheap tricks. For instance, the genre of women dressing up like men to get their man, in Sayer’s hands plays somewhat flat. Additionally, the racial analysis (recognizing in all fairness that this story is first and foremost a romance, not a dissertation on race relations) is rudimentary at best and smacks of  another literary trope in which white characters (think Huckleberry Finn, for instance) display a latent desire to assume blackness, to, in effect, experience blackness through their black companions. For example, after listening to a beautiful solo James plays on his sax Pearl exclaims, “‘How’d you do that?’ [Then] she [lays] one hand on his shoulder, as if the answer could be transmitted magically through his skin.”

That said, Sayer seems cognizant of this tension when, in another passage Pearl, when describing her first encounter with a Negro jazz band, gushes that after that she knew exactly what she wanted to be. In jest, James remarks, “You wanted to be colored?” Pearl cheerfully admonishes him and clarifies that she wanted to be a musician, but this moment resonates with racial tension and savvy on Sayer’s part, critical not only of Pearl, but the larger concept of black America’s perception as being a “cool” culture — a wink and a nudge that maybe Pearl, too, just wants to be “down.”

As far as WWII romances go, Sayer meets expectations, with moments of genuine lyricism in her writing. Her book touches on notions of womanhood, barriers to racial equality, and the many social moors that seem aimed at fencing us in and fencing us off as individuals and from our own desires. Yet, again, Love in the Years of Lunacy is above all a story of romance. It feels at times limited by its own interests and perhaps by the genre. If you like it light and sweet this might just be your cup of tea.

Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the UK, promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.