The Song Before it is Sung by Justin Cartwright

This is the first book I’ve read by Justin Cartwright. I was looking forward to reading it because, with my interest in World War II fiction, it sounded so interesting and also had so many glowing reviews. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to my expectations at all and I thought it was one of the most disappointing books I’ve read this year.

The Song Before it is Sung is based on the true story of the friendship between the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the German diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was involved in Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. Cartwright has changed their names to Elya Mendel and Axel von Gottberg.

Mendel and von Gottberg first get to know each other as students at Oxford in 1933. Their friendship is put to the test when Axel writes a letter to the Manchester Guardian denying claims that Jews are being badly treated in Germany. Elya, who is Jewish himself, is offended and confused by this. Their relationship is strained from this point – until von Gottberg is arrested and sentenced to death for his part in the Stauffenberg plot.

I enjoyed Axel and Elya’s story, but like many of the historical fiction novels I’ve read recently, the historical storyline is framed by a contemporary one and in this case, it just didn’t seem necessary. The present day protagonist is Conrad Senior, who met Elya Mendel many years later during his own time at Oxford. When Elya dies he leaves all his private correspondence to Conrad with the desire that he will use them to tell the story of his friendship with von Gottberg.

For me, this book would have worked better as a piece of straightforward historical fiction. The chapters about von Gottberg and Mendel were interesting and compelling, but every time I started to become immersed in their story, we were abruptly pulled back to the modern day and Conrad’s marriage problems which didn’t interest me at all. The one part of Conrad’s story that did interest me involved a piece of film showing footage of the trial at which von Gottberg was sentenced to death for his part in the conspiracy. Conrad believes that film of the actual executions still exists and decides to track it down.

Axel von Gottberg is an interesting character, but sadly Cartwright didn’t manage to bring any of the others to life for me. I couldn’t help but feel that reading this book was a lot of effort for very little reward. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading it if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the only book I had at work with me for a couple of days. Don’t let me put you off reading this book though, because I can see that a lot of people would love Cartwright’s quiet, contemplative writing style.

Have you read any of Justin Cartwright’s other novels? Maybe you can convince me that I need to give him another chance!

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3 thoughts on “The Song Before it is Sung by Justin Cartwright

  1. Karen K. says:

    I had the same issue with People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I thought the historical sections were fascinating, but I didn’t care at all about the contemporary characters that supposedly held the story together. I didn’t find that story interesting at all.

  2. MysticOlive (@JoziMaud) says:

    I started reading ‘The song before it is sung’ yesterday and I can see your point about how misplaced the story of the marriage may seem, I am nevertheless enjoying the book. Some books are not so much about the story as the writing, and this book falls into that category for me. It is my first Justin Cartwright book, but I have not really registered any author that for me has been able to bridge between what I would characterise as just writing beautifully and telling a good story.

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