Seventeen-year-old Pearl Willis thinks she plays hotter saxophone than her twin brother Martin. It is the 1940s. They both perform in separate bands at Sydney’s famous Trocadero Club. When the club’s revolving stage turns, Martin’s all boy band disappears and Pearl’s all girl band pumps out the jazz.
But it is not all fun and late night jam sessions in Mandy Sayer’s novel Love in the Years of Lunacy. Sydney is a city gripped by war.
When Japanese submarines attack Sydney Harbour, houses are abandoned. Cellars become air raid shelters. Streetlights are covered with metal guards. Food rationing begins to bite. Money is tight. But there are plenty of American GIs swarming the streets looking for entertainment – and some of those GIs are black.
One night, when the Willis twins finish their stints at the Trocadero, Martin smuggles Pearl into the sole venue where a girl can sit in and play with the band. The Booker T. Washington Club is also the only place “in the state” where black people are allowed.
It is here Pearl meets the hugely talented James Washington. A bebop player from “Looozy-anna”, James has played on records with Count Basie and other jazz greats. After a shaky start, James concedes Pearl plays a “mean axe” and agrees to teach her to take more risks by “following the shadow of a tune rather than the tune itself.”
Their clandestine liaison blossoms, but there is no avoiding the daily realities of racism. When James asks permission from his CO to marry Pearl, his request is denied and he is transferred to New Guinea.
The second half of the novel plunges us into the wilds of New Guinea. Sayer’s absorbing and unorthodox take on the Second World War centres on the motley members of an Australian military band. We follow them lugging music gear through “lush wet steeples” of forest and mosquito-infested swamps while dodging sniper fire, as their uniforms rot. Not everyone is delighted when reinforcements arrive bearing saxophones and ventriloquist dolls, instead of guns and medicine. But as Sayer suggests, the soldiers “needed music as much as they needed morphine or antibiotics.”
Inspired by stories of her musician father, Sayer says this novel took “ten years to think about” and another ten to write. Never afraid to push the boundaries, the author’s plot twists, humour and frankness resonate with the rich, surprising, bittersweet texture of jazz.
Published in the Northern Rivers Echo