Details: (c) 2002 Norman Lebrecht; Pub Headline Review 2003; ISBN 0-7553-0095-5
Verdict: The song of names is readable and emotive.
Reasons for reading it: My parents read it for a Jewish book discussion group and were raving about it.
How it came into my hands: The parents borrowed it from a friend at synagogue and sub-lent it to me.
The song of names is one of those books I just can't detach from. It's the story of how the narrator, Martin Simmonds, loses his soulfriend and how that loss affects him. I can't make any judgement of either the portrayal of really intense friendship or of losing that, because even the crudest description would move me because it's so coloured by my own history. I was in tears more or less all the way through tSoN. I suspect it's probably overly sentimental, but then again, I've not read much that even tries to deal with this theme.
This for the first seven chapters. I was utterly drowned in the story of Martin and Dovidl's boyhood friendship, intercut with Martin's quest to find Dovidl after 40 years of separation. After that, there's the resolution to the mystery, which I was able to read more objectively. Yes, it's entirely unexpected, it makes a good twist to the novel and is generally satisfying. Unfortunately it's then spoilt by a really awful ending; Martin behaves extremely badly, in ways that seem inexcusable as well as inexplicable (even though Lebrecht goes in for stating his characters' motivations explicitly), and then lives happily ever after.
I find Martin a rather unsympathetic character, and quite a clever one at that; I did care about him in spite of thinking rather badly of him. His sense of humour borders on the cruel but he is at least reasonably witty. The trouble is, I so very much want that kind of deep friendship to mean something I find it hard to accept any faults in someone who loves a friend that way. I also over-identified with Martin something awful, so I was on the brink of feeling personally guilty about the things I despise about him. What if I get to 60 still trapped in the emotional patterns formed when I was a teenager? What if I'm frittering my life away wallowing in my sense of loss? What if when I do find my friend again I decide to take petty, vicious revenge on her for abandoning me? There's no point in this line of thought, but such is my reaction to the book.
It doesn't help that Dovidl has a number of similarities to my soul sister. tSoN does quite an impressive job of portraying him both through Martin's adoring eyes, and letting the reader see him as human and fallible. He's very brilliant and very loveable, and very secure in the sense that everybody he meets will love him and do whatever he needs them to do. He isn't by any means intentionally manipulative, but he has a very strong knack for making people feel loved and needed, and that his esteem is the greatest goal they can work for. And he's foreign and gorgeous and plays the violin exceptionally well. In short, even though I (perhaps arrogantly) think I'm a nicer and more personable human being than Martin, his relationship with Dovidl feels strikingly familiar. Or perhaps I'm just reading into things again.
In terms of things I'm not too close to be able to talk about sensibly, well. tSoN is, I think, not a bad popular novel but it's pretty much good fluff. The language is very slightly over-written, not horribly so and indeed there are some quite nice phrases and images, but it tends just a bit towards being lush and overly poetic. The portrayal of the post-war Jewish community and the relationship of mainstream Jews with the ultra-Orthodox is reasonably well done. And there's a rather lovely portrait of an extremely thinly disguised fictional Newcastle. The Holocaust stuff is kind of blah, but at least it's not gratuitous to the story and I'm really rather picky about Holocaust fiction.
I'm not sure what anyone who isn't me would make of tSoN. My guess is that if you've generally enjoyed the mainstream bestsellers of the last couple of years, this isn't at all a bad example. If you don't like that kind of book, it isn't anything special enough to be worth making an exception for.