Each of the stories in Rebecca Makkai’s new collection, “Music for Wartime,” begins as a secret. The protagonist, the author, the very book itself is whispering something to you. The whisper begins soft and muddled, the story obscured until, suddenly, the characters leap from the page and tell you their failures and memories.
Considering the collection’s title, it makes sense that most of Makkai’s diverse collection of narrators live in war-torn regions, or to be more accurate, they used to live in war-torn regions. But Makkai also pulls from quieter, more domestic wars. The war of love and heartbreak, the war of being a child and trying to understand your parents, the war of surviving your own conscience.
The secrets of Makkai’s stories come from a distant place in the past as if to say: they are long gone, this is not their story, this is the way we imagine them. In “The Miracle Years of Little Fork,” a young preacher does some good in a small town while questioning his faith and choices. What you as a reader take away at the end is entirely up to you—that’s the gift of a secret. You may find this particular secret sad or hopeful, it all depends on you. And as Makkai shows us, it all depends on each of us. We’re the good and the bad, the political prisoner and the lover that absconds in favor of safety; we’re the proud owners of our family’s victories and the begrudging holders of their crimes.
In “Music for Wartime,” Makkai reminds us that our lives are made up of small choices, but those small choices ripple on and on into the future. A composer in “The Singing Women” tries to capture the dying songs of a culture and, in doing so, wipes it out. Our best intentions reap what they reap.
Rebecca Makkai’s stories are beautiful and heartbreaking, musical yet somber. The brightest moments are tempered with the greatest loss, and the only hope we find for ourselves in these pages comes in the form of other people. We’re stories, old and new, and we’re all connected. And we’re all true even when we’re made into characters on a page.
Makkai sums it up perfectly when she writes: “But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I?”
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai (Viking | 9780525426691 | June 23, 2015)