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And After the Fire    Lauren Lauren Belfer order for
And After the Fire
by Lauren Belfer
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2016 (2016)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Here's an outstanding historical novel. Lauren Belfer's And After the Fire alternates its action between the period after World War II in Germany and the present day, revealing what happened to a music manuscript by Johann Sebastian Bach and its rippling effects on those whose lives it touched.

The novel opens in May 1945 in occupied Germany. American Corporal Henry Sachs (a Jew) and his best buddy Pete are sightseeing and come across a house that seems unoccupied. Henry finds sheet music in the piano bench, and takes an old handwritten manuscript. Then a thin girl shows up pointing a military pistol at them and muttering about the Jews who had owned the house. When she shoots Pete in the arm, Henry kills her, an act that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

In 2010 New York City, we meet Henry's niece, Susanna Kessler (executive director of a charitable organization, whose personal life has been on hold since her fiance abandoned her after she was raped) as she hears of Henry's death. Of course, she finds the manuscript among his belongings and then is faced with the dilemma of what to do with it. Once authenticated it will be worth a fortune, but it also includes text condemning Jews. Susanna consults a scholar, Daniel Erhardt, and Daniel's friend Scott Schiffman is soon pulled in as well.

Back in 1776 Prussia, Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm, teaches vivacious young Sara Itzig to play the harpsichord. She has an extraordinary talent. He admires her greatly and feels protective of her. Sara's father is a financial genius, the king's banker and Master of the Mint. On Sara's wedding, a dying Wilhelm presents her with music he has written just for her. The presentation box also includes his father's score, Wilhelm trusting hs protege 'to be the cantata's guardian.' Readers follow its - and Sara's talented musical family's - fate down through the years as conditions worsen for Jews in Europe.

Lauren Belfer makes readers care for all the (past and present day) actors in this drama, as they struggle with the dilemma of what to do with an invaluable music manuscript that also stands as hate literature. The journey and struggle lead to a degree of redemption for Susanna, while the disposal of Bach's score is entirely apt. I highly recommend And After the Fire to you as a compelling read.

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