When I interviewed Susan Lanigan after the publication of her first novel, White Feathers, I asked about her most interesting writing quirk. “Music,” she revealed. “Every character has a soundtrack – Lucia’s naturally is a bit longer since she is the most musical – and I stick in musical references whenever I can.”
Music is front and centre in Lanigan’s new novel, Lucia’s War. We meet Lucia Percival in London in 1950, a successful opera singer. She is scheduled to perform her last concert, but she has no intention of going on stage. A haunting secret from WW1 has caught up with her. She is baring her soul and telling that long-held secret to an admiring music critic.
Roll back to WW1 and its immediate aftermath. Lucia is a young Black emigrée from Jamaica. She has moved to London with dreams of being a singer. Her war work takes her as a VAD to a hospital in Boulogne. She faces the horrors of wounded soldiers and the doctors’ ethical dilemmas at the cusp of life and death. Not to mention the intersectional discrimination for being a woman of colour. She is ultimately sent back to London in shame for her association with a Scottish doctor.
“I didn’t have any nefarious plan to take advantage. Didn’t have any plan at all.”
“You see, that’s the difference between us,” I said gravely. “I can’t afford not to plan. Not when I’m trying to navigate through a world that’s not made for people like me.” (ch 13)
In London, she is welcomed into the companionship of cultural Black society, where she is connected to singing lessons and guided in her career. But she cannot let go of her tragic loss. Will she find happiness?
Through Lucia’s voice, we hear the power of music. Through her eyes, we see the manifestations of racism. She endures the range … systemic annoyances like not being able to find makeup for darker skin tones … being refused basic necessities like employment, housing or service … fear of stares, taunts, violence and arrest for simply being “other”.
As for the music, the depth of Lanigan’s historical research is evident. A who’s-who of Black and mixed-race musicians, writers and culturati of the time make appearances: Edmund Thornton Jenkins, Gwen Coleridge-Taylor, Evelyn Dove, Dr John Alcindor, Giovanni Barbirolli, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra and others. Lanigan’s writing evokes the sensation of the soundtracks. Her attention to detail goes so far as to accurately document the address of an Aerated Bread Company (ABC) café on The Strand.
The themes in Lucia’s War resonate today, as we confront racism, sexism and another global pandemic.
Many characters from White Feathers appear again in Lucia’s War. That said, the new book is not a sequel. It’s the story of one of the other people whose lives connect. Easily enjoyed whether or not you’ve read the earlier book.
Thanks to Susan Lanigan for an advance review copy. Views, as always, are my own.
It’s been a while since my last book review. I’ve been catching up on reading not related to WW1 and exploring books by some of the authors I discovered through Great War 100 Reads. When a WW1 book sneaks into the pile, I will share my thoughts here.