White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Publisher - Hamish Hamilton

Published - Out Now

Price - £14.99 Hardcover

Carter and Seth are worlds apart – one a trust fund hipster, the other a penniless social misfit – but they make a great team.

Brought together by a shared love of music, they’re rising fast on the New York music scene. Everyone wants a piece of what they are selling. Until the day Seth stumbles across an old blues song – and everything starts to unravel. Carter can’t resist sharing the unknown song online where it goes viral immediately, spiralling out of control and carrying him in its wake. As Carter is pulled ever deeper into a shadowy underworld, Seth, always the sensible one, has no choice but to follow his friend into the darkness.

We often like to think music has evolved freely but there are many instances of white musicians using songs and tunes from black artists to further their own careers.  Even giants like the Beatles can show this in their work. Hari Kunzru takes this a theme for a horror novel that balances 21st century rap versus 20th century depression blues to create an interesting yet flawed literary horror novel.

The story is told through Seth’s eyes.  A rather introverted poor student who is happier recording conversations of others from afar than actively taking part.  He crosses paths with Carter; a rich student who also doesn’t want to fit in but loves music and although in all other aspects of life they’re from different worlds this love of sound bonds them. Soon Seth finds himself Carter’s roommate living in a luxury apartment; using the latest equipment/also the best vintage equipment and slowly they’re becoming artists known for giving artists a new old school sound. Seth wanders the streets recording and by chance he picks up a chilling refrain sang by a stranger in the park. Carter loves it and wants to hear more and more.  Eventually discovering the whole song hidden in Seth’s street recording its haunting blues tune neither have heard. To Seth its creepy but to carter it’s the best thing ever. He’s plunged into discovering the Blues and moves into a world of collectors and online bids for records all to find out more. But both the would-be music geniuses find that there is something lurking out there and its been waiting a long time.

So, what really appealed in this story is atmosphere.  Kunzru really captures places and types of people well.  You get the feeling of these New York apartments that the very rich own to make them seen as if they’re living on the edge of poverty. Easily contrasted with trips to Carter’s wealthy family estate with staff waiting to serve them and a host of millionaires to be dancing and laughing around. Later, the novel captures very different environments the poverty-stricken areas of the US at the turn of the century and most creepily when one character relives the brutal interrogation of a black man for a crime he doesn’t commit. There is a growing feel that in these empty spaces something is hungry for these youths to cross its path.

Character however I think is where I felt the book let itself down. Pretty everyone here is a terrible human being. Carter and Seth are your typical dudebros – very much focused on themselves and our narrator is rather creepy with his efforts to record everyone and in particular his obsession with carter’s sister.  It comes across as a critique of the 1% who are oblivious that they don’t have to worry about rent and can just purchase anything they need with a phone call. Seth is from a poorer family though and frustratingly there isn’t much made of how he is not one of this group and has had a different life experience to contrast with their own until quite late in the novel.  I was not impressed with how the main female character Leonie is handled. She seems to be very much there for one purpose - to become a victim and while I appreciate in a horror story everyone is a potential target I felt she had little agency of her own bar Seth’s continual desire for her.

My biggest issue was the horror element.  As I mentioned Kunzru can write scenes that unnerve you, but the story really doesn’t hang together.  The force the two young people are getting involved with takes a long time to really do much and the eventual motive doesn’t quite hang together. Its thrown into the plot that Carter was bipolar, but no evidence is really done with it and I think more could have been done with the idea of cultural appropriation but neither Carter nor Seth actually show much evidence of that in their music before things hit the fan. Rather than a growing sense of tension building up to a horrific climax I found myself hoping for things to happen. Constant reviews of the life unpleasant rich people driving around the US was not for me enough to keep me interested.

So overall while I think Kunzru has a great grasp of style and giving his characters a voice to show their inner personalities I don’t feel I’ve read a successful horror story that has something to say about life in the 21st century.  Worth a look for an example of literary horror but not one I think I will be replaying anytime soon.