LOVE IN THE YEARS OF LUNACY
Readers willing to suspend their disbelief during Sayer’s fascinating tale will be rewarded with a rollicking South Pacific war drama, with a jazz soundtrack to boot. Set mostly in WWII Sydney, the first half flies by as the forbidden romance between 18-year-old Pearl and James, a black American G.I., gets off to a sizzling start — almost as hot as the jazz James teaches Pearl to play on her sax. Oddly, the pace slows when the battle action cranks up in New Guinea, but Sayer’s deft hand at detail and the sweeping love story will keep readers hooked until the novel’s almost unavoidably melodramatic ending.
When an indigenous Australian crime writer stumbles across a collection of recordings belonging to his Aunt Pearl, a lauded Sydney jazz musician, he is mesmerized by the biography she asks him to pen. Raised by a pair of eccentric musicians, 18-year-old Pearl and her twin brother Martin play nightly gigs at Sydney’s famous Trocadero ballroom, but Pearl really longs to play American jazz. One night, Martin, also a saxophonist, sneaks her in to play at the Booker T. Washington Club for Negroes. There, she is entranced by James Washington, a black American G.I. and jazz legend from Louisiana. The two quickly fall into a heated yet hushed affair, even as air raids rock the city. When James’s spiteful commander and his own doubts push the pair apart, Pearl falls into a depression that she only overcomes after she concocts a scheme to impersonate her brother in a military band unit destined for New Guinea — where James has been shipped. But Pearl must first survive the war, while protecting the secret of her identity, to find her true love. (ATRIA, Nov., 336 pp., $15.00)