And After The Fire by Lauren Belfer

Lauren Belfer has written a compelling novel on an unknown Johann Sebastian Bach cantata that is hidden until present day. The masterful work is entitled And After the Fire (452 pages).

An overview from the publisher:

In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him.

In America in 2010, Henry’s niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family’s history—and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past.

In Berlin, Germany, in 1783, amid the city’s glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach’s son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come.

Belfer expertly weaves the separate stories of Sara and Susanna into one compelling story. It is fascinating how Belfer efficiently switches from one character to the other even though they are centuries apart. A true masterpiece in writing.

Although the story is fictional, it is believable that a master composer’s work has remained hidden in time. It is also credible that a European composer with a Lutheran faith was anti-Semitic (as many know, Martin Luther was anti-Semitic).

The character development is strong not only for Sara and Susanna, but also a host of supporting characters. These include Dan (a scholar who assists Susanna in her search) and Lea (Sara’s niece).

My only criticism (I know I have mentioned this before) is the belief system of the present day’s characters. Why can’t a popular novelist write about a person’s faith in a positive light – why do characters have to be atheists or embrace atheism because of a trying experience. Can an author have a character whose faith is strengthened because of a trying ordeal?

Overall, the book is a wonderful look at Enlightenment and Romantic-era Berlin. A great read for history and mystery readers.

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