On this historic day, the word 'historic' is beginning to look slightly frayed at the edges - but I'm going to grab it and fray it a little more, because frankly, that is what Barack Obama's election as the 44th president of the USA feels like. Historic.
I didn't know that the Americans would choose a president with a white mother and a black father when I started reading Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing about a fortnight ago, but it turned out to be the perfect choice for this time of international singing. Yes, like millions of people all over the world I want to raise my voice in a song praising the young and charismatic president elect. No, I won't do it, because I can't sing, alas. But let me do it silently, mouthing the lyrics like a transvestite singer camping I will survive.
Yes, we've all survived eight years of George Bush - and centuries of racism and bigotism before that. As a born South African, I've seen more than my fair share of hatred between races, but I needed this extraordinary novel about a 'mixed-race' family (father white, mother black, children searching their identity) to remind me of how strong the river of racism used to flow in the USA until shockingly recently. And that the undercurrents are still there. Will probably always be there, as in my own 'rainbow nation' of South Africa.
The blurb on the back of this book reads as follows: Powers brilliantly and devastatingly delineates the tragedy of race in America, as it unfolds from the Civil Rights movement to Rodney King and Louis Farrakhan, through the lives and choices of one family caught on the cusp of identities. It is indeed a riveting read about race and identity and family, but it is much, much more. It is a story about music and singing, about physics and time, about love and hate and war and peace and time, above all about time. It is not 'easy reading', which is why it took me more than a fortnight to finish it, but it is also one of those books that you read slowly because you don't want to part company with it.
You need time, after all, to read a story about time.
The first hundred pages are particularly tough for people like me who read words but not notes - musical notation - and who have lived in fear of scientific subjects ever since high school. This book brims over with musical theory, including long lyrical passages about the art of composing, as well as mind-boggling ideas about the elasticity of time. The surprise is that the self-assured style of writing simply sweeps you along - as when you appreciate a magnificent modern poem or a Shakespeare tragedy without having to understand every single word - and after about a hundred pages you won't even try to swim anymore. You'll be quite happy to drown in this glorious stream of prose.
When you reach the incandescent final chapter, you might even grasp something of the circular nature of time. I broke out in goose-pimples when I realised what the author had pulled off. Surely this must be the supreme reward of this remarkable novel.
And if there ever was a right time to read a book like The Time of Our Singing, it is now. At this 'historic' moment, when a man who grew up 'on the cusp of identities' has been chosen to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth.