Top critical review
Too long for a good song
Reviewed in the United States on June 18, 2005
This book was enthusiastically recommended to me by a friend, and the reviews I read of it made me even more eager to read it. Now, having finished it, I find myself rather disappointed, yet somewhat hesitant to give an opinion. The writing itself is of such quality and, often, sheer beauty, and the scope of its themes is so monumental, that I cannot help but admire the writer for his audacity and skill. Of course, likes and dislikes are always matters of taste, but this eventual "dislike" had me wondering if the fault was with this particular reader rather than the novel. Still, the book left me, if not exactly bored, strangely exasperated. It seems to be one of those novels where the story does not evolve naturally from the characters, but where the characters are elaborate mechanisms for dispensing philosophical and political ideas. A suspicion Powers tries to repel by cramming his pages with picturesque and quaint individual detail, and by rehashing the central motives (race, time, music) in a way that verges on the obsessive - bloating this book to a daunting 630 pages in the process.
The Time of Our Singing tells the story of a black woman and a jewish man who decide to marry after meeting at a musical event-slash-antidiscrimination rally. Their mixed marriage is the bane of her parents, and of the central characters in the novel, the two sons and the daughter issueing from their bond. One of the sons grows into a singer of world class stature, while the other is tossed to and fro between the claims made on him by his brother as a fellow-musician, and by his sister as a fellow black person. After the tragic death of the mother, their scientist father is incapable of keeping his family on track, as he drifts off into an esoteric world of physics centring on the idea that time is directionless and that everything is present at the same time - a metaphor Powers takes just one step too far towards the end of the book. The singer brother eventually ditches his solocareer to join an early music group in Belgium, while the sister becomes a pro-black activist. The insurmountable problem of race is at the core of it all, and is elaborately dished out in the stories of no less than 4 generations. Add to that lots (lots!) of talk about music, and uncommon levels of musical accomplishment in so many characters as to defy believability; - and put all that against the backdrop of half a century of racial confusion in the US. Then, maybe, you may understand something of my feeling that this book is trying to deal with a few Big Themes too many for its own good.
Things are not helped by the very obvious desire of Powers to be profound and moving, an aim in which he is defeated by the way he lays it on way too thick. Sorry as I am to say it, page 630 came as somewhat of a relief, and his characters left me quite unmoved, even if his writing itself at times didn't.