The Song of Names

Sometimes a life is shaped more by a missing presence than by its existing relationships and deeds. For most of his life Martin Simmonds has felt this way, ever since Dovidl, the young genius he describes as closer to him than a brother or a homoerotic partner, vanished.

The two boys grew up together in wartime London, Dovidl a refugee from the soon-to-be-destroyed Warsaw ghetto. They shared adventure and even a sense of security during the Blitz, after Martin’s music-impresario father agreed to shelter and mentor the young genius. In late adolescence Dovidl subtly changed. As he prepared for his first public concert, he seemed as consumed by music as ever, but his mysterious late-evening ventures hinted at darker involvements. Dovidl was coping with being the only member of his family to survive, so Martin gave his friend’s other activities the benefit of the doubt. Then came the night of Dovidl’s much anticipated concert, but the young genius did not appear. Martin’s father was almost ruined, both financially and professionally.

Martin graduated from Cambridge University, took over his father’s business, married, and had children. With a solid reputation in musicians’ circles, his seemed to be a moderately successful life. Yet always he felt a hollowness at its core. Forty years later, a chance event hints that Dovidl is still alive. Martin’s phlegmatic heart leaps up. He springs into uncharacteristic action. Soon the mystery is solved.

Or is it? To the very end, both Martin’s and Dovidl’s stories pose questions for the reader. Did events really happen the way they tell them? Or is Dovidl a masterful escape artist, and Martin’s sense of loss just an excuse for underachievement? These questions give the book an unexpected depth. The settings it explores—wartime London, the world of classical musicians, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community existing in conscious challenge to modern Jews—immerse readers in unfamiliar but fascinating subcultures.

Norman Lebrecht has had a long career as a music critic and journalist. The Song of Names is his first novel, an impressive addition to his other achievements.