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From wartime Sydney to Papua New Guinea, love, bigotry and bebop infuse Mandy Sayer’s latest novel.

It’s hard to conceive of a time when there were laws in the US against whites and blacks marrying each other – though Australians can hardly be complacent: there was a time here when adult Aboriginal Australians required permission from a white ‘protector’ to marry, and even today a couple of the same sex cannot marry at all. During the Second World War it was ‘illegal in 33 States’ of the US for whites and blacks to wed.  Segregation extended to the military, and black soldiers were not allowed to carry weapons. When black GIs came to Australia on furlough, the US authorities required that they be housed in separate camps (the white soldiers in barracks, the blacks under canvas) and clubs in Sydney were divided into those suitable or unsuitable for black American patrons.

Love in the Years of Lunacy is the story of a young white Australian woman, Pearl Willis, who plays alto saxophone in the all-girl big band at the Trocadero night club, and her love for James Washington, a black American GI and a hugely talented musician.

The year is 1943, but even in Pearl’s family of musicians, the scandals surrounding the visit 15 years earlier of Sonny Clay’s Coloured Idea are remembered (the all-black American band – the first of its kind to visit Australia – was deported after the musicians were found in bed with white girls).  While Pearl’s parents may like black music, they are definitely not ready for a black son-in-law, a fact that James recognises far more swiftly than Pearl.

The coils of this relationship propel the story, as the war and prejudice push and pull the lovers apart.  Can they be together? Well, there is more than one twist in the unfolding of this tale, which soars like a great saxophone solo as it moves from wartime Sydney to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. And it is the lovers’ passion for jazz music as much as their passion for each other that saturates the story.  Here is Pearl’s first encounter with James in the black GIs’ Booker T Washington club, where she has gone to jam with her twin brother (also a saxophone player) after her gig at the Trocadero:

…  there was a commotion down the back of the hall. A group of servicemen stood hooting and whistling and then [a] tenor saxophone suddenly began howling.

Through the half-light, she couldn’t quite see who was playing it; she could only hear the runs between the registers that were fast and sharp and accenting the back beat.  The sound seemed to be coming from everywhere, up through the floorboards, from the very walls themselves, even bouncing off the pressed tin ceiling. The paper streamers on the windows shook.  The crowd parted and now she could see a glowing tenor gliding through the room like a beacon through fog, followed by a tall man who was blowing into it.  He was playing so loudly that Pearl could hardly hear the pianist’s chord changes … As he walked up the stairs to the stage the dancers slowed and then stopped altogether to stand and watch.

Pearl, with her muddy stockings, bird’s nest of blonde hair piled on top of her head and clasping her father’s old alto saxophone, is stunned and stumbles off the stage.  So impressed is she by the music that she asks James to teach her this new way of playing – but not before they have consummated their relationship in a carriage of the Tumblebug ride at Luna Park during an air raid.

Jazz aficionados will recognise the references to bebop and the names of the jazz greats James has played with.  He is a hard taskmaster, demanding Pearl practise for four hours each day. And throughout the novel Pearl practises anywhere she can – in her bedroom, the family air raid shelter, even, at one point, inside a linen cupboard.

But of course true love never runs smoothly, and when Pearl and James are parted, Pearl is plunged into a despair that drives her to attempt suicide.  The attempt, to her greater anguish, is unsuccessful, and she begins a series of appointments with the Master of Lunacy who, in the course of prescribing steam baths and quinine paste, forms an unprofessional attachment to his pretty young patient.  (A pedant’s note here:  in reality the Master of Lunacy in New South Wales was a quasi-judicial role, not a medical one, so Pearl would not have received treatment from someone with that title – though it lends a lovely resonance to the novel’s own alliterative name.)

The Master of Lunacy is everything James is not – white, unmusical, conservative, and clearly not the man for Pearl.  However, he is kind and attentive and Pearl drifts into becoming his fiancée.  Of course, the marriage cannot be allowed to proceed – can it?

The novel is structured in two parts, framed by a modern-day narration by Pearl’s nephew, who, a year after her death, unearths a box of tape-recordings she had made telling the story of her life.  (Luckily the nephew is a successful crime novelist and is able to transpose her story onto the page.)  The first part deals with Pearl and James in Sydney, and ends with James being shipped off to fight and Pearl devising a daring plan to follow him.  The second part is set in Papua New Guinea, a place of heat, sweat, mosquitoes, snipers, bombs and enemy planes.  And still, miraculously, music: in the rhythm of rain on a roof, the call of birds, in musical exchanges with the locals.  In these sections, the novel shifts up a gear from wartime romance into part action-adventure, part suspense-thriller and part surreal comedy – though through it all the longing that motivates Pearl is never forgotten.

Mandy Sayer is best known for her intensely personal memoirs Dreamtime Alice (about tap-dancing with her jazz drummer father) and Velocity (about surviving childhood with her abandoned mother). Her fiction explores life on the edge, whether it’s the children on the run from an abusive father in her last novel, The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, or the underbelly of Kings Cross in The Cross, inspired by the stories surrounding the disappearance of Juanita Neilsen.  Love in the Years of Lunacy returns Mandy to her home ground of Kings Cross, this time inspired by memories of her father’s stories about playing at the Trocadero during the war, and it is written with great verve and affection.

Mandy Sayer Love in the Years of Lunacy Allen & Unwin 2011 TPB $32.99 ISBN 9781742373379

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