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The Song of Names Paperback – February 10, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
In this highly entertaining and accomplished first novel by a well-known English journalist and music critic, two men who became friends as children in London during WWII are reunited after 40 years. In 1939, nine-year-old Martin Simmonds meets Dovidl Rapoport, a violin prodigy the same age. Martin's father is a music impresario, and when Dovidl is sent by his Polish parents to study in England, he offers the boy lodging in his own home. Dovidl and Martin quickly become best friends. Dovidl's parents perish in the Holocaust; then, in 1951, Dovidl-his name changed to the more palatable Eli-is about to embark on a career as a concert virtuoso when he disappears on the day of his debut. Martin becomes obsessed with his friend's disappearance, and after decades of searching finally finds him in a dreary town in the north of England. Lebrecht's deep knowledge of music, his insights and his verbal inventiveness enliven the book (describing two awkward professors, he says they "stand out like frayed cuffs on a funeral suit"). However, the novel drags in the middle with the backstory of the two boys living through the blitz; this is material that has been presented elsewhere and in greater depth. Also, there's no real mystery in unraveling either the location or identity of Rapoport. Simmonds's supposedly epic quest ("I am consumed by thoughts of finding him") is over in less than two days, and it's a letdown for the reader not to be able to sift through tantalizing clues. These shortcomings aside, this is a confidently written and engaging first novel by a talented writer.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Winner of the 2002 Whitbread Prize for a first novel, Lebrecht, cultural commentator for the BBC, brings to life an intriguing tale about music and betrayal. Dovidl Rappoport is a violin prodigy and a Polish refugee whose family perished in the Holocaust. He now lives with a wealthy Jewish family in London and befriends their socially awkward son, Martin Simmonds. Martin's father, a musical impresario, trains Dovidl for the biggest debut on the London stage, and Martin is commandeered to act as caretaker. The two become close friends, forming a sybaritic relationship. Dovidl, however, slowly begins to slink into London's seamier nightlife and eventually disappears on the day of his much-anticipated debut, wreaking havoc on the family and its business. Forty years later, Martin discovers a trace of the vanished prodigy and eventually ekes out a plan to avenge the betrayal all those years ago. Lebrecht's story delves into the horrors of the Holocaust and the Blitz, as well as the quiet communities of Hasidic Judaism that developed in Britain after the flight of so many refugees. What emerges is a vivid and outstanding story that sings about artistry, genius, music, love, envy, friendship, and revenge. Michael Spinella
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
Martin Simmonds is the son of a man who ran a music promotion company that catered to the middleclass. In 1940s England, that was unique and probably considered quite low-brow. But the man was a master of PR and with this skill would take young hopeful classical musicians and build them a career of minor fame.
Just before Hitler invaded Poland, David Rapoport, a nine year old violin prodigy, is left by his father in the care of the Simmonds. The father went back to Poland and David never saw him or the rest of his family again. David is many things to the Simmonds family. To the father, he is the great future star who will make the company well thought of. So David is groomed and coddled, brought to the best teachers, given an almost priceless vintage violin. But to nine year old Martin, David is a brother, a companion, an idol, but most of all someone to love in a fairly loveless family.
They grow up together and David makes Martin come alive, gives him a personality and Martin feels loved in return. The book open 40 years after David disappeared on the night of his world debut. Martin is now an old hypocondriac and a broken spirit. He has taken over the family business, which has devolved into a shoddy, outdated sheet music company. On a business trip to the English hinterlands, Martin hears a young violinist with a bit of David's signature technique in his playing. So begins the search for David and the reader learns the backstory.
It is a wonderful book, written in a smart modern tone but full of history. During the Battle of Britain, you feel you are there with two nine year old boys, doing the paper route and exploring the bomb sites. The world of a training musician, of the single-minded competitive attitude necessary, of the maneuvering by the manager/promoter is all created. And the inner life of a boy growing to manhood in a foreign country with no news of his Jewish family in wartorn Poland is portrayed with reality and sensitivity.
But it is not a mawkish or heartwarming tale. It is full of human folly and unlovely emotions. The moment when the meaning of the title is revealed is so heartstopping that I had to put the book down for a while and digest it all. There is also humor, musical and religious philosophy and a good dose of mystery.
THE SONG OF NAMES won a Whitbread First Novel Award. Say what you will about awards, because if it hadn't won, I may never have come across the book.
Dovidl walked into Martin's life when they were both nine years old. Martin was living in upper-class comfort with his parents in England. Despite his family's money, his life was unhappy. His parents saw him as a nuisance and he was teased at school and bored at home. Then Dovidl and his father showed up on the doorstep. Dovidl was a violin prodigy and his family lived in Poland. However, this was in the nineteen-forties, and things were getting dangerous in Poland, especially for Jews like Dovidl's family. Martin's father agreed to take in the boy while Dovidl's father returned to retrieve the rest of the family.
Dovidl's father never returns; the entire family is murdered in a concentration camp. Martin and Dovidl, far from the tragedy, grow up like the closest of brothers. Dovidl has the raw talent, but he insists that he needs Martin to help guide him through his life and put his genius gift to work. Martin blossoms in his friend's presence, and Dovidl approaches his twenty-first birthday and his professional debut.
On the eve of his debut, Dovidl disappears. Martin's dreams of greatness disappear with him. Forty years later, though, Martin still hasn't given up on finding his friend. He is convinced that Dovidl is not dead, and is simply in hiding somewhere. On one of his travels, he hears something in a violinist--something hauntingly familiar and unique. Could this boy know Dovidl? Could he lead Martin toward unlocking the mystery that has taunted him for decades?
I really liked the mystery behind this story, and the flashback to the boys' childhood together. I got a real feel for what it would have been like living in England in wartime. I liked the ways Dovidl and Martin depended on each other and the things that each one brought to the relationship. I didn't particularly like Martin's character on its own, though. He was an unpleasant and petty child, who grew into a petty adult. He blamed Dovidl for all of his problems, instead of taking control of his own life. Spend forty years chasing after revenge just isn't an appealing character trait.
However, the first few and last few chapters are about the boys as grown men. I enjoyed these and found the characters far more realistic. All of the book is told from the point of view of Martin, the London boy who hosts the prodigy.
The "song of names" refers to a song used to remember the names and dates of death of Jews who died in the Holocaust. I suppose this really did exist and that it was the inspiration around which this book was constructed. A lot of it, mostly the central part, has a reportorial feel. After all, the writer is a reporter. I didn't warm to any of the characters. The dialog throughout was more like people lecturing each other than really talking.
I thought the ending was funny and clever.