• Review
By – April 20, 2016

In May 1946, Cor­po­ral Hen­ry Sachs is sta­tioned in Weimar, Ger­many. He is a hap­py man; his war is in essence over, and he will soon be return­ing to the Unit­ed States. Before they leave Ger­many, Hen­ry and his friend Pete decide to explore the streets of Weimar, most of which they have nev­er actu­al­ly seen. As they wan­der down a street of hous­es once owned by Weimar’s pros­per­ous Jews, they notice one that seems to be inhab­it­ed and decide to go inside. A grand piano dom­i­nates the liv­ing room. Hen­ry, who loves music, opens the bench and grabs some pages of old blot­ted music that he stash­es in his knap­sack. Imme­di­ate­ly after­wards, a crazed young girl enters the room shout­ing invec­tives against the Jews and bran­dish­ing a gun. She shoots Pete — who is super­fi­cial­ly wound­ed — and Hen­ry has no choice but to shoot her.

In the 65 years that fol­low, Hen­ry Sachs is haunt­ed both by the music he stole and the girl he killed.

Susan­na Kessler is Henry’s niece. When he com­mits sui­cide at 86, he leaves the pages of music to her. Susan­na has recent­ly under­gone an act of vio­lence that has left her fear­ful and has caused her hus­band of six years to leave her. She spends her time giv­ing away mon­ey for a wealthy foun­da­tion and knows noth­ing about music. After look­ing at the sheets of music care­ful­ly, how­ev­er, Susan­na sees Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach’s sig­na­ture on them and real­izes that her uncle could have sold them for a for­tune if they are authen­tic. The his­to­ry of the musi­cal sheets — called an auto­graph — and Susanna’s efforts to deter­mine their prove­nance and why they were sup­pressed for so long com­pris­es the rest of this mar­velous novel.

And After the Fire is metic­u­lous­ly struc­tured; the action moves effort­less­ly between 1946 Weimar, 2010 New York, and 1783 Berlin. Slow­ly the back­sto­ry of the auto­graph unfolds. The read­er learns how Bach’s son came to give the auto­graph to Sara Itzig Levy, a wealthy Jew­ish girl and a musi­cal prodi­gy. Sara pre­served the music for almost a cen­tu­ry, and then passed it on, ensur­ing that its secret would be main­tained. Final­ly, it was hid­den in the man­sion owned by Jews before the war that Hen­ry and Pete discover.

Susanna’s sto­ry is inter­twined with Sara Levy’s; as Belfer weaves back and forth between the two women, Sara and Susan­na emerge as dop­pel­gangers with a com­mon goal: pre­serv­ing and Illu­mi­nat­ing the man­u­script. Luck­i­ly Susan­na stum­bles on two experts, Scott and Dan, who — while high­ly doubt­ful of the orig­i­nal­i­ty of the work — promise to help her in her quest to dis­cov­er if the auto­graph is real, what it says, and why it was hid­den for cen­turies. Work­ing to iden­ti­fy the truth of the auto­graph and inter­act­ing with Scott and Dan brings new life back to the young woman who had thought she was emo­tion­al­ly dead.

The nov­el is elo­quent­ly and ele­gant­ly writ­ten. The themes are impor­tant and engag­ing. It is not a nov­el one will put down eas­i­ly or for­get at its conclusion.

Relat­ed Content:

Suri Boiangiu recent­ly semi-retired from the posi­tion of assis­tant prin­ci­pal at an all-girls high school. She has either been an admin­is­tra­tor or taught Eng­lish at Yeshiv­ah of Flat­bush and Magen David High School. She loves read­ing mod­ern fic­tion, or any fic­tion, and Ama­zon knows her by her first name.

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