Given Hari Kunzru’s own genealogy – the son of a Kashmiri Pandit father and an English mother – it is perhaps unsurprising that all five of his novels grow out of the rich soil where racial streams intermingle. But whereas the transformation in his debut novel, The Impressionist (2002), is a relatively surface affair – a brown man impersonating white behavior in order to ‘pass’ – in his latest, White Tears, the process is far more visceral.
Seth, the narrator, spends his days wandering the streets of New York, listening and recording. “I collected audio of thunderstorms, music coming out of cars, the subway trains rumbling underfoot; it was all reality, a quality I had lately begun to crave, as if I were deficient in some necessary vitamin or mineral.” On one of these walks, his audio equipment picks up a stray line of an old blues song, “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own.” He plays back the line to his friend Carter Wallace. Carter is obsessed with “prewar blues recordings, lone guitarists… scraping the strings with knives and bottlenecks and singing in cracked, elemental voices about trouble and loss.”
The two are hooked, as surely as any fish, and reeled inexorably in. The closer they come to the truth, the more permeable the membrane between past and present, between reality and madness. The narrative, brilliantly constructed via soundscape as much visual description, drags the reader back with them to America’s Deep South in the 1930s and the blood-stained legacy of the Wallace family’s wealth.
Carter’s sister Leonie is scathing: “My brother feels guilty for being a rich boy. That’s why his heroes are always poor or black.” She goes on: “Even if you did something, I don’t know, really selfless. Black lives matter or whatever. They [black people] still wouldn’t like you.” What, after all, is a bleeding heart weighed up against a punctured lung, a broken head? Guilt is no substitute for justice.
Seth and Carter’s doomed attempt to transcend their “disabling caucasity” forces us to reappraise racial politics at a time when the old uglinesses we thought were long dead are on the rise again. In the wake of Lionel Shriver’s ill-judged remarks about ‘cultural appropriation’ last year, the rise in racially motivated attacks across Europe and in America following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, White Tears is a powerful, urgent book from one of Britain’s most astute and politically engaged writers.
A shortened version of this review appears in India Today, 3.3.17