THE WAY THINGS END by Charles David
Tartarus Press, 234 page HC, £35.00
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Music is a very powerful force. The Radio 4 series Soul Music is testament to that as they talk about pieces of music that have a powerful emotional impact. Music is at the heart of this novel. It is also a novel about selfishness and hardship.
It begins in 1940. Roosevelt Sands is a young black musician. When he kills the man who has exploited his talents for years, he flees. Being robbed of his guitar and thrown off a moving train just adds to the troubles Roosevelt has had to bear. Finding, by chance, another guitar which he steals, he ends up at a crossroads in the rain and plays. That music begins the unravelling of the world.
Over in Europe, the war is beginning to consume the continent. A young Jewish girl, Adelaide, is sent into the Romanian countryside to live with strangers for safety. She writes stories in her notebook and is the start of a chain of events that link people in tragedy even though they are unaware of each other. Later, her stories are published as a slim book. Close to the place where she lives is a prison. When a tornado sweeps through the area, much of it is destroyed, allowing some inmates to escape. Paval is one of them and sees what he thinks is an angel in the storm. The funnel pulls him up and dumps him near Elena’s home, and the encounter between them ends in her death and his as the villagers take their revenge.
Later, in 1966, David Jackson, a Vietnam veteran, discovers a copy of the book in a second-hand shop and is drawn to illustrate the stories. These he posts to the publisher. The reprinted book is a favourite of Adam Miller, who, in 1980, is trying to cope with his father being in prison for causing the death of the local preacher’s wife by careless driving.
Then the situation begins to descend onto the surreal. Earn Pollock was in Vietnam with Jackson. One morning in 1980, he wakes up to find a whale in his Arizona yard. It is too large to move, but trying to cut it up, he finds Gheorghe inside, still alive. Gheorghe was a friend of Adelaide, but by 1980, he had become an alcoholic sleeping under a bridge. He has no idea how he came to be in the whale. They sit, drink and smoke as the stars begin to go out.
The linkages between sections are clear, and the writing is of high quality. Charles David has also been brave enough to encompass the attitudes and language of the periods he is writing about. Our attitudes to racism and sexism in 2021 are far different from 1940. Through the eyes of Roosevelt Sands, and later David Jackson, we see the ways that black Americans were treated. There was so much casual cruelty that was mirrored in Europe, where the Jews were the victims of discrimination. The way that this author grasps the mores of the times and doesn’t shirk from reality is admirable. Anyone who is offended shouldn’t be just ashamed that our recent forebears could behave in such ways. As a debut novel, this is excellent.
Any book from Tartarus Press is a delight. To an extent, it doesn’t matter what the contents are like; the object itself is quality, from the gold lettering on the boards, through the heavy, acid-free paper to the silk, stitched in the bookmark. The price may seem a little high, but each book is an enhancement to any collection. If this title doesn’t appeal to you, see what else is on offer – there will be one that you want.