Review: White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Here’s the summary of White Tears from Goodreads, because I need you to understand my reading experience:

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

White Tears

Doesn’t that summary sound like a light social satire in which a Music World Uproar causes privileged white boys to realize the folly of appropriation? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (that’s a reference to something terrifying that happens in the book). Don’t be fooled:ย “White Tears is a ghost story” should have gone up front, because holy shit, White Tears is a ghost story. White Tears is primarily a ghost story. When Seth and Carter send their faked song by imaginary Charlie Shaw out into the world, they set into motion a goddamn terrifying ghost story.

real footage of me on a short break from White Tears

I am trying to strike a balance in this post between telling you enough information to get you to read this book and spoiling the reading experience. This book grabbed me by the throat and shook me like a Polaroid picture. It’s Southern gothic written by a Kashmiri British guy. It catches the reader up in Seth’s need to know how his life came to be in this shambles, even when you can clearly see that he’s walking straight into his own doom. It makes privileged white kids pay the bitter, vicious price of the country’s racial sins. It’s the rare ghost story that makes you root for the ghost.

If I had one gripe, it’s that the resolution of White Tears is perhaps a smidge too tidy. What you eventually find out about the ghost and its motivations, about Carter’s family and their history in the American racial landscape, is certainly effective to the story Kunzru’s telling. But in a way, I would have found it more satisfying if the ghost’s revenge on these people had been random and unfair, if Seth and Carter just happened to be the people on whom the ghost’s eye fell. If you’ve read the book, let me know if you agree! I will take arguments to the contrary.

Anyway, whatever, White Tears is still scary af. There’s this one scene, oh my God there is this one scene where Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie are down south talking to a black guy in a pick-up truck, and it will haunt my nightmares always. You’ll know the one when you get to it. Also, the B side of the Charlie Shaw record.

Please read this booooooooooook and then come back and talk to me about it! And also, if you have read other books by Hari Kunzru, what did you think of them? I would like to know more!

23 thoughts on “Review: White Tears, Hari Kunzru”

  1. You’ve gotten me TWICE today, Jenny – onto the TBR this goes! Sounds awesome and weird!

    1. I thought of it when you posted that poem! Ummmmm, nightmares, I think yes there is at least a possibility that it would give you nightmares. Because it is not only scary in a societal sense — like there are clear places where this book’s setting and events touch my life — it also has scary images in it. So.

    1. Ha ha, I totally agree! I am very curious now, but I know I couldn’t cope with this. I don’t need any new material to haunt my nightmares. ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. Hahahaha, okay, that’s fair enough! It is indeed VERY SCARY, and of the ?four? people who have also read it that I’ve said “I’d rather it be random,” all of them have disagreed with me. So there you go. :p

  2. OK, I’m interested now. I’d read a very brief mention of this book in the New Yorker that left me feeling ambivalent as to whether I should pick it up, but this post makes me feel like I probably should!

  3. A “goddamn terrifying ghost story”? Yikes! I’m not sure this one is for me, but it sounds really interesting. I have a couple of friends who love ghost stories (and love to be scared). I’ll add this one to my “gift ideas” list. Thanks!

  4. I know I read that plot summary somewhere and it sounded like an interesting book but it certainly didn’t come off as terrifying. I’ve noticed that a bit lately – the blurbs and summary don’t necessarily match the tone of a book. Too many marketers, not enough readers.

    1. Having worked in marketing for publishing, I will say that all the marketing people are also passionate readers. (Everyone in publishing has to love reading because we are n o t in it for the money.) But they can’t read every book that gets published, so I’m actually going to blame either the author for being bad at describing his book (the title, you notice, is also not tremendously suited to the book) or the acquiring editor for passing it through. MY PEOPLE ARE INNOCENT. :p

  5. You make this book sound way better than the blurb does! It’s gone on my list!
    I went to check out the author, and although I’ve heard of a couple of his books, I don’t know anything about them. I think you might have to read one of them for us. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. THANK YOU, making it sound better than the blurb does was my entire goal. And yes, I am planning to read more by this author — I have one of his books checked out now! It’s called, I think, Gods without Men? I’M ON IT.

  6. “It makes privileged white kids pay the bitter, vicious price of the countryโ€™s racial sins. Itโ€™s the rare ghost story that makes you root for the ghost.” This right here is kind of enough for me to want to read this. And way more than the description which did not interest me.

  7. I just finished this and am now back to talk to you about it. I didn’t like it as much as you did–I thought the turn toward horror was too abrupt. I did love the B-side. I’ll have to go back and look for the pick-up truck scene you reference. The scene that made an impression on me was in the flashback, with the two white guys assuring the police they were not there to make trouble, no sir. Because it’s just too real.

    And I agree about the resolution. I don’t think ghosts need to be given strong, seamless, perfect motivation. The randomness of ghosts is part of the scariness.

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