Paula Huston's first novel, "Daughters of Song," has about it an air of touching innocence. Fortunately, this naivete is not a sign of the author's inexperience, but rather, testimony to her skill in evoking the heart and mind of a shy young piano student living away from home for the first time.
Huston's heroine, Sylvia, is studying music at a prestigious conservatory in a rundown Baltimore neighborhood. She is terrified by her formidable teacher, the fierce, elderly Cornelius Tot, who has set her the task of learning Beethoven's last piano sonata, and who constantly denigrates her efforts as woefully inadequate.
Sylvia draws some comfort from her fellow students: her closest friend, the self-sufficient, jazz-loving Peter, who is like the brother she never had; her high-spirited Ukrainian roommate Marushka; awkward, sensitive Jan, a Czech, who has a secret crush on Sylvia; and suave David from Israel, a good-looking ladies' man. Sylvia's own immaturity and inexperience seem crushing disadvantages in her mind, not only to her social self-confidence, but also, she fears, to her ability to understand the depths of the great music she is being asked to interpret.
As Sylvia trembles on the threshold of becoming a grown-up, both personally and professionally, the reader is also introduced to two older women artists who have faced and continue to cope with similar pressures and challenges in their lives. Beautiful Moon Ja Koh, a former student at the conservatory now in her forties, has become a world-famous pianist, but at the cost of considerable sacrifice to her personal life. Moon Ja's teacher and friend, the gentle, kindly Katerina Haupt, also a fine musician, now in her sixties, wonders if she might have gone farther in her career had she been more disciplined, less tender-hearted.
The lives and loves of the musicians at the conservatory contrast - and sometimes intersect - with the hand-to-mouth existence of the homeless who congregate in the neighborhood. Indeed, an accident involving one of the street people is what propels Sylvia to engage in an impetuous act that may have dire consequences for her career and life.
Huston deftly and believably juxtaposes the experiences of old and young, the gifted and destitute, to create an affecting collage of city life. The personal crises confronting the three women at three stages of life serve to delicately illuminate one another. And in portraying most of the novel through the innocent eyes of the still teen-aged Sylvia, Huston enables the reader to re-enter the vulnerable yet privileged state of soul where everything that happens seems to matter too much.
Jonathan Wilson's first novel, "The Hiding Room," seems at first glance to be the story of a man in search of the father he never knew. But the focus of this novel is less on the son's search than on the father's identity-shattering experiences as a young British intelligence officer stationed in Cairo during World War II.
Daniel Weiss's mother, Esta, has never told him anything substantive about the man who was his father. It is only after her death that Daniel, by this time a man of 50, comes to investigate the mystery of his origins. Journeying from England to Israel in accordance with his mother's wish to be buried in Jerusalem, Daniel uncovers the story that led to his own birth.
It begins in 1941, when Archie Rawlins, a 22-year-old British officer, interviews Esta Weiss, a Jewish refugee who has escaped to Cairo. She tells him of Nazi atrocities in Europe that she has witnessed, but his superiors are not interested.
Simultaneously attracted and repelled by her intensity, Archie Rawlins becomes involved with her and her cause, much against the wishes of his superiors, who claim she is a member of an underground Zionist group responsible for killing a British diplomat who turned back a refugee ship bound for Palestine.
Rawlins' superiors want him to exploit his connection with Esta to find out more about the suspected terrorists. Rawlins' role in the ensuing drama reflects his deep fear and confusion. He cannot help noting the bitter irony of the fact that a British soldier like himself can easily travel to Palestine for a weekend furlough while a homeless Jewish refugee is barred from setting foot in her promised land.
Yet the Zionist extremists who attack Britain are undermining the war against Hitler.
As Rawlins wavers between helping the young woman and spying on her, questions of personal trust are further complicated by complex issues of political loyalty.
Wilson's realistic portrayal of an impressionable, inexperienced young man, dislocated by war, bewildered in his emotions and his sense of morality, is matched by equally subtle and shaded portraits of others involved in the story, including Esta herself; her pathetic father, who is her sole surviving relative and who has already made it to Tel Aviv; and Captain Mendoza, the Oxford-educated Jewish chaplain who becomes drawn into Rawlins' problems against his own better judgement.
"The Hiding Room" is a first novel in which nothing is pure and simple, in which people find themselves making life-or-death decisions that are little more than leaps in the dark, and in which a young man loses an innocence that was little more than insularity in order to play his part in a real-life drama where actions have incalculable consequences that cannot be evaded.