Hari Kunzru’s fifth novel, White Tears, is a time-bending mystery that focuses on America’s struggles with race and the blues music that grew out of those struggles.
Seth runs a recording studio in New York City with his best friend, Carter, who is an heir to a billion-dollar family fortune. On a walk around the city, Seth unintentionally records a chess player’s victory chants as he passes by. Upon hearing the playback, Carter becomes obsessed with the recording. While Seth only remembers hearing a snippet of song, the recording reveals five full verses. Carter pairs the vocal with a blues guitar track and tries to sell it as a long-lost recording from the 1920s by Charlie Shaw, a name he made up. When an elderly record collector forcibly pursues the offer, Seth starts to realize that he has stumbled upon a force much larger than coincidence alone. Charlie Shaw was not just someone Carter made up; he was someone trying to find Carter. When the nefarious history of Carter’s family business is revealed, Seth makes a pilgrimage to the South with Carter’s sister to piece together a ghost story and hopefully repay the family debts that have manifested as Charlie Shaw.
Kunzru’s insight into the world of audio production is as impressive as his knowledge of early-20th-century blues artists. He tackles issues such as white privilege through characters that are often less than likable and juxtaposes them with the racial violence of previous decades.
Navigating time and landscape in a way that is subtly disorienting, the novel is instantly engrossing and a definite must-read.