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.