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.