Protest music and show tune rhymes: The Songs by Charles Elton
The Songs is a strangely enchanting novel about the children of an ageing protest singer and how their unusual lives converge. Rose is sixteen and cares for her dying younger brother Huddie whilst living with their eighty-year-old father Iz Herzl amidst the presence—both real and imagined—of his current and past wives. Rose and Huddie’s mother died falling out of the same window twice. Meanwhile, Iz’s much older son Joseph writes songs very much unlike his father’s political work: rhyming tunes for musicals. As things go wrong and the siblings who have never met end up with their lives coming together, it becomes clear fame, family, and truth are not always simple.
Elton’s novel is made up of a bright and distinctive cast of characters, from Rose’s first-person narration, in which her view on her beloved brother, her maths ability, and her family’s unusual history become clear, to Maurice, a schoolboy from the late 1940s fascinated by revolution who meets a Jewish outsider. The book may seem initially to be focused on music and the life of a musician’s family, but a lot of the novel is also about religion, history, and loss, as well as the darkly comic truth of estranged family and secrets. At the start of the novel, the discussion of fame, rumour, and retelling history make interesting points about celebrity life, and throughout these recur in different ways to show connectedness and also how things aren’t always as they seem.
The tone is light yet distinctive, making it an easy and enjoyable read, and the narrative does have one or two surprises. It will appeal to fans of books that contain distinctive characters with both light and deep subject matter, for example novels by Matt Haig. The real standout is the perspective of Rose and how her and her brother exist as the eccentric and often forgotten children of a famed singer and activist.