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Brendan Slocumb addresses racism in classical music in ‘The Violin Conspiracy’: NPR

Brendan Slocumb addresses racism in classical music in ‘The Violin Conspiracy’: NPR

Polemics rarely work in fiction, and for a very good reason: fiction breeds empathy and polemics encourage attack.

But in his first thriller The Violin Plot, Brendan Slocumb puts the racism controversy to good use by reminding us that the colorful world of classical music suffers from and because of racism.

Slocumb knows this world inside and out. A lifelong violinist, performer and music teacher, he says in his online biography that becoming a musician saved his life: “Friends [I] grew up with are now sitting in jail; when they ran through the streets, [I] was in rehearsals.” The author’s protagonist Rayquan (Ray) McMillian had a similar trajectory. Young Ray’s mother never encouraged his enjoyment of the violin, but his grandmother loved to hear him play and insisted that he take his grandfather’s violin.

Although covered in years of rosin and missing a chin rest and bridge, Ray sees the value in the violin and tinkers with the money for its repair. Eventually, after earning a full scholarship to college, a professional violin maker recognizes the violin as a true Stradivarius, worth millions of dollars. Soon Ray’s family and another (white) family will attempt to claim his beloved violin, with the stakes rising as he prepares for the most important event of his young career – competition at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition. .

Ray decides to hole up in a Manhattan hotel with his charming girlfriend, violist Nicole. One evening, as they are about to leave for dinner, Ray opens his case to check his violin and finds it gone, a white Converse sneaker with a ransom note in its place. During Ray’s struggle to collect the $5 million in Bitcoin the thieves demand, we learn about his personal struggles. He continued his education in the face of his mother’s insistence that he find a job and help with household finances, faced the disdain of many teachers and classmates as a young black man playing classical music and learning big truths about how much money is needed to pursue this kind of creative calling.

What’s most interesting about Slocumb’s novel isn’t the mystery of how and why the violin disappears, though the evasions and dead ends are interesting enough, especially when it comes to the Marks family, who insist about the fact that the Strad belongs to them because their ancestor gave it to Ray’s great-great-great-grandfather – whom they enslaved. It’s easy to imagine a similar standoff in America today, where so many people still seem to believe that because slaves had no rights, neither should their offspring.

But as Ray pursues his missing violin, he must also pursue his passion, which is to play the violin – and that equals playing but also practicing. Slocumb imbues his character’s life with so much authenticity in detail, detail that anyone who has played a string instrument or played in a professional ensemble will recognize. You get moments of glory on stage, but you also have to spend hours practicing scales and phrases. You have to travel a lot, making sure you always have adequate security and insurance for your instrument, sometimes several. Rehearsals, sound checks, and dealing with backing staff take longer than you’d like.

And you do it anyway. Where Slocumb shines, even when his writing gets a little stiff, is in the passages where he shows Ray’s courage. “So here’s what you do if you’re a black guy trying to make it work in an unknown world:” Ray tells us. “You just put your head down and do the work. You do twice the work of the white guy sitting next to you, and you do it twice as often, and you go half as far. But you do it. “

Shortly after finishing reading a galley of The Violin PlotI saw a The telegraph of the day obituary of the 85-year-old black violinist named Edmund Reid, who died on January 17. core members of British orchestras. I’m sure Brendan Slocumb knew Reid’s name and talent long before I did (shame on me). Slocumb’s debut on the page will hopefully not be his last appearance there, as he has a lot of brio to share with readers and listeners alike.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.


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