Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime - Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)
Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

This is Rebecca Makkai’s third book, following two novels. This short story collection is cohesive, yet diverse. There’s reality television and professional musicians and family legend. Indeed, fact and fiction are mixed together here. Spliced in between the fictional stories, Makkai includes interludes of her own family history, namely that of her grandparents. Her grandmother, a novelist highly respected in her home country of Hungary. Her grandfather, a politician responsible for introducing racist measures against the Jews in Hungary in the 1930s. Makkai’s father is the only child of their brief marriage. Makkai delves into her own attempts to reconcile this world history with her person experiences and memories of her grandparents, especially her grandfather. (This interview sheds some light on her story and process.)

The short stories are fine but the heart of the collection is really the real-life glimpses. While the fictional stories have interesting premises, I found that Makkai didn’t leave much room for the ambiguity that so many of the best short stories contain. While she does a neat job of creating worlds, they still feel fake as their tales are wrapped up a little too neatly. (Granted, some readers prefer this but I like a little more thoughtfulness in my short stories.)

On the other hand, the historical segments are full of an uncertainty and moral ambiguity that left me wanting more. While I’m not sure Makkai’s explorations, as seen here, are enough for a novel length book, I think they could stand alone as a set of linked family stories. Some of the fictional short stories here do have a wartime theme but not all and, in total, it creates a dissonance that wouldn’t be noticeable in a more traditional story collection. Basically, I think there is the potential for two books here and I’d be especially interested in an expansion of the non-fiction side.

As it stands, the book is a fine and interesting read with glimpses of the author’s potential to offer much more.

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