New Fiction: And After the Fire – Lauren Belfer

Back in the day, Belfer had a major bestseller with her debut, City of Light—a historical novel I still think about thanks to her deft, detailed, you-are-there portrayal of the electrification of 19th century Buffalo. She married that setting to a suspenseful story of murder, politics and industrialization which prefigured the now hugely popular subgenre of historical novels where plot propels the reader along but a ground level view of real history is part of the payoff.

The NYT called City of Light, “Impressive. . . . A stereopticon of a novel, sepia-tinged at the edges, yet bursting with color at its center…[with a] vivid sense of the time and place…. [A] powerfully atmospheric book.”

Belfer’s next book, A Fierce Radiance, captured America’s race to develop life-saving antibiotics coupled with a story of blackmail, espionage, and murder. It was again well reviewed, with the NYT commenting that it was “similarly ambitious, combining medical and military history with commercial rivalry, espionage and thwarted love. Belfer clearly knows her scientific material. She also knows how to turn esoteric information into an adventure story, and how to tell that story very well.”

Now we’re treated to a third barn burner of a story that traces the journey of a long-lost Bach cantata through time, trauma, war, and the legacy of anti-Semitism. Again the fictional plot is grounded in real contexts, characters and circumstances. And again the research is first rate, making for a crash-course in Bach’s complex musical legacy.

Reviews at on sale have been superb. Maureen Corrigan’s Fresh Air piece captures the overall tone of the praise:

Belfer writes evocative, deeply researched historical novels that contain, but are not dominated by, a suspense plot…. And After the Fire, is another absorbing read centered on the discovery of a lost cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach—a piece of music that was stolen in Germany during World War II and resurfaces decades later in Buffalo, New York. The kicker here is that the libretto accompanying Bach’s gorgeous music is infested with anti-Semitic sentiments. Belfer’s novel roams from the salons of cultured Jewish patrons of the arts in 18th century Berlin to hushed Ivy League libraries where vicious scholarly rivalries of the present play out.  And After the Fire explores the vexing question of whether art can be simultaneously beautiful and hateful.  A heavy subject for summer reading, but Belfer’s novel–in fact all of the novels I’ve mentioned here—manage to dazzle while delving into dark places.”

And the advance reviews were all great:

In Belfer’s compelling third novel, an American soldier in 1945 Germany unknowingly purloins a controversial unpublished cantata by the great Johann Sebastian Bach, and it ends up in the hands of the soldier’s niece, Susanna Kessler, upon his death. The journey of this manuscript, with lyrics based on one of Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish screeds…is interspersed with Susanna’s own inner trajectory to finding normalcy and love in her life after being raped. The author’s strengths lie in the historical passages, starting with the 1780s….Belfer’s comprehensive research brings depth and veracity to the novel….[T]his is an immersive, page-turning story emboldened by historical fact and a rich imagination.”
Publishers Weekly

“A remarkably suspenseful story, a literary thriller in the tradition of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“[A] compelling blend of fact and fiction.… Based on impressive research, this remarkable novel spans centuries and continents, touching finally on the Holocaust and serving as a paean to Bach’s music while acknowledging the composer’s expressed hatred of Jews.”
Booklist (starred review)

And After the Fire (9780062428516) by Lauren Belfer. $26.99 hardcover. 5/3/16 on sale.

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