And After the Fire

Written by Lauren Belfer
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

Spanning centuries, this latest novel from Belfer (A Fierce Radiance, City of Light) is her most compelling yet. It is grounded in the fictional story of Susanna Kessler, whose uncle bequeaths to her an unknown J. S. Bach cantata he looted from the ruins of Berlin in 1945.

Susanna, struggling to recover from rape, immerses herself in the responsibility of her inheritance. In the tradition of The Red Violin, we are whisked back into the late 18th century. Bach’s dying son entrusts the work, whose lyrics are laced with disturbing contempt by way of Martin Luther, to his wealthy and gifted pupil, Sara Levy (1761-1854), a cultured, Enlightenment Age Jew.

Anti-Semitism (that “dismal tradition that brought lethal consequences”) links the stories and the centuries. The lives of the two women run parallel in the narrative. Sara’s long life and glittering drama, surrounded by great minds and enormous talents, is never less compelling than Susanna’s quest.  Family secrets and mysteries continue to unravel as both women ponder the crucial role of morality and ethics in our lives. Both academic antics (one Bach scholar is nicknamed “Doktor-Vater”) and pondering on the life of the spirit happily co-exist. Told with lyrical beauty (in a tender love scene, the past exists with the present), the novel is like the lost cantata itself, revealing our capacity for darkness, redeemed by the power of unconditional love. A dazzling, transformative novel. Highly recommended.