And After the Fire
I have been a big fan of author Lauren Belfer since living in Buffalo and discovering her wonderful book City of Light (see my blog). She followed this up with the equally good A Fierce Radiance (see my blog) so I was delighted to recently find her new book And After the Fire.
This historical novel is set between modern day New York and Germany in the late 1700s through to the second world war. It starts as modern-day Susanna Kessler is clearing out her uncle’s house in Buffalo after his death and comes across a manuscript that seems to be an undiscovered cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach that her uncle took from Berlin in 1945 as the war was ending. Susanna herself has shut herself away from the world to heal after being raped by a stranger, and her marriage breaking up in the aftermath. She has found herself a safe haven to live and immerses herself in work for a charitable foundation. The discovery of the cantata forces her to re-engage with the world as she seeks to find out if it is genuine, and then has to deal with the discovery of its content calling for the persecution of Jews.
The story also traces the life of Sara Itzig Levy, in the novel one of the original owners of the lost cantata, and in real-life a fascinating historical figure that I knew nothing about. She was a renowned musician, the host of a famous salon where Jews and Christians mingled, and was the aunt of composer Felix Mendelssohn. Her life covers a fascinating period of history when Berlin was the capital of Prussia and the novel covers a real historical incident when Count Achim von Arnim caused a scandal by making openly anti-semitic slurs at one of Sara’s salons.
Sara and Susanna’s stories are intertwined throughout the novel, as two Jewish women making their way through the world. Susanna becomes increasingly involved with the Bach scholar Daniel Erhardt, travelling with him to Germany to find out the truth about the cantata. Daniel then has to deal with his own Lutheran religion’s role in antisemitism, whilst Susanna decides what to do with her historical discovery, which has such power and potential for further evil.
This is a fantastic historical novel and you can see why it won the National Jewish Book Awards. It deserves to be much more widely known.