I was unsure what to expect of Norman Lebrecht's first novel, which won the 2002 Whitbread First Novel Award, given the author's polemical style, but bought it in a 3-for-2 offer at Waterstone's recently, and following shameless commercialism on Radio 3 where it was plugged by the author at every opportunity.
The basic plot of the novel is a good one - the disappearance of a Polish refugee in London after the war on the eve of his debut as a violin virtuoso, and the effect it has on his closest friend. It's hard for me to be positive about the book, though: I wouldn't say that I didn't enjoy it, but I did find it rather unsatisfying. Although there are many passages that are very cleverly written, at times dramatic and others sparkling with witty references, and one sublime Hitchcockesque episode, the novel was disjointed in places and the plot development had some twists that were, frankly, as incredible as those in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series, though in a tome I was expecting to take more seriously. I also found it unsettling that the novel was written for the most part in the present tense: trying to be positive about this, it gave the novel a much more rhetorical than narrative style. Another surprising point is that none of the characters in the book are particularly sympathetic, being variously amoral, socially climbing, calculating and vindictive. Even in enlightenment, there is no concept of forgiveness, barely acceptance. This made me feel much more detached from the players than I would have expected.
So I enjoyed the book, though I also found it frustrating. I was expecting a serious novel, which in part is what I got, but with occasional vulgarity and absurd plot twists. On the other hand, it is far too erudite to be considered light reading, unless you have a good knowledge of classical music and at least a base knowledge of Jewish culture. I admit that for the last chapter or two, I "couldn't put it down", but that is not a phrase I could apply to the book as a whole.