Iz was a mystery really, but maybe everyone’s parents are a mystery to their children.
Iz Herzl was once a legendary protest singer and political activist in the mark of Bob Dylan. At age 80, Iz is now almost forgotten and losing his memories. However admired he was by outsiders, he was an impenetrable figure to his children; the super smart Rose, and sweet, sensitive Huddle, stricken with muscular dystrophy. Iz had another child as well by another woman; Joseph is a middle aged Broadway songwriter who only met his father once to disastrous results. Now with his career flagging and the victim of horrific violence, Joseph has reached a stage of crisis, while 16 year-old Rose and 15 year-old Huddie are isolated in their own private world. Their mother is long gone, having fallen out of a window (possibly intentionally) when they were toddlers and they’ve been raised by their stepmother, Carla, who, while by no means evil, isn’t exactly overflowing with maternal warmth, either. The formerly disparate members of the Herzl line finally start to collide with one another, and along the way an earth shattering truth emerges.
In The Songs, Charles Elton weaves a complex, multi-layered narrative examining the nature of truth, connection, family, and mortality all at once. Besides the wounded members of the Herzl clan, centered by Iz the most contradictory and indecipherable figure of all, another focal point is Shirley, wife of Joseph’s writing partner, Alan, who lost her daughter some fifteen years before and has a result become obsessed with questions of reincarnation and the afterlife. Shirley is in open conflict with Kevin who is producing Alan and Joseph’s show and some of the most amusing bits come from the depiction of the trials and travails of theatrical production, something Elton, a former British TV producer is intimately familiar with. It all seems like a lot to handle, yet somehow, all this is packed into a very compact novel of a minimalist writing style that has the direct impact of a blunt object and the final lines of the novel are simply beautiful.