White Tears by Hari Kunzru review!

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

‘I think of what I learned by listening through the crackle and hiss, into the past: they either add dollars or days and if you don’t have dollars, all you have to give is days.’

I haven’t read White Tears for a while, but I felt it was important to start this series of blog posts off with a review of a book that has had a major impact on me in the last few years. I first read White Tears in late 2017 and ever since I have told as many people as possible, how much I love it, even citing it as one of the best books I have read.

Kunzru’s book is a ghost story, in the most unusual of ways. It doesn’t have familiar tropes of literal ghosts, haunted buildings, spooky voices etc. but instead relies on haunting in an abstract sense, as our main characters become followed by a history, they wish they weren’t involved in. Following New Yorker’s Carter and Seth, White Tears analyses race through the perspective of the music industry. As up and coming producers, the young men create a blues track using a clipping from a song they hear a man singing on one of Seth’s audio recordings of his walks through New York. However, it turns out this song isn’t as obscure as they thought, a fact which results in disastrous consequences.

White Tears is extremely clever, which is why I enjoy it as much as I do. Kunzru’s main subject is race. A topic he tackles in a startlingly poignant way. All his protagonists are white, yet we are reminded, no matter what, of the black voice that sits behind the white people’s actions and utterances. In placing the white characters at the forefront but drawing attention to the cultural appropriation they commit, Kunzru cleverly illustrates the stealing of experience and culture that is all too prevalent in the arts. One particular incident that stands out here, is a scene where a white rap artist is talking to Seth and Carter about producing an album inspired by black artists called ‘My Past Lives.’

Written in an age of police brutality (the book was published in 2017) Kunzru in one short scene captures perfectly the inability of white people to ever truly understand what the lives and experiences of their black counterparts will and have entailed. Interestingly, he continues this theme by making all the victims (in the traditional literary sense) white people, yet the actions that lead to their downfall are always centred around an appropriation and looting of a culture that is not theirs, leading to further questions of who the true victims really are.

Kunzru’s novel is also perfect in capturing this idea of what makes a victim by making every single character extremely flawed. Personally, the character I enjoyed reading most was Leonie, Carter’s sister. She is undeniably racist, despite constantly telling others she isn’t, whilst also viewing herself as a white saviour. Yet, she herself is a victim of overt sexualisation and is seen as an object by those around her, especially Seth, setting up a tug of war between feeling sorry for her and finding her impossible to like. Interestingly, on top of this, Seth himself as a poor character is exploited by her family creating a cycle of hate. It seems that for Kunzru it is key to illustrate that the characters within this cycle are white- they are victims of their own making.

This fact is no better illustrated than through the switch in the narrative around halfway through the novel. Ambiguity is at first created as we are made unaware of who is speaking to us before finding out it is a retired record collector, narrating his past (one that scarily mirrors Seth and Carters) teaching us that after everything no one has learnt. It is at this point that the novel really takes off. Kunzru’s constant back and forth between the two narratives, the past and the present, keeps us on our toes and aware of the tendency of history to repeat itself.

White Tears is a must-read page-turner- a firm 10/10.