White Tears by Hari Kunzru book review

The ghosts of cultural appropriation haunt Hari Kunzru’s brilliant White Tears

Hari Kunzru delves into the vinyl collection of a young American jazz and blues enthusiast with a deft hand presenting the true horrors of blinkered power with a gravely disturbing story that digs deep under the skin and refuses to leave.

On leaving university two young men from vastly different economic backgrounds start a music company specialising in analogue production. Rich white boy Carter funds the business through his father’s wealth while his shy friend Seth happily rides on his coattails without questioning his good fortune. Carter has long been appropriating black culture and with his musical hobby now a career he yearns to own every rare record he can get his hands on.

His obsession takes a dangerous turn after hearing an old blues song by Charlie Shaw that he uploads to the internet. The two men are soon haunted by the cursed song that demands to set right wrongs and give voice to long lost tales hidden in the cracks of time.

Often brutal and graphic but also chilling and nuanced, Kunzru renders the reader powerless by swirling up provocative ideas concerning race and withholding information until breaking point. His protagonist Seth is sent into a state of confusion in the latter half of the book as he travels from New York to Mississippi and back again, and as his journey gets murkier the reader is tasked with solving an intriguing mystery.

The skilful way Kunzru details Seth’s ruin convincingly puts you in his shoes as he shifts through various stages of white guilt.

The final pages leave you aghast with sorrow and frustration at the consequences of a system designed to repress and break the black population in the USA. Kunzru raises similar concerns about mass incarceration that filmmaker Ava Duvernay did in her recent documentary 13th delivering a smart statement on what it really means to be controlled and the importance of reparation.

With White Tears Kunzru has written a surreal modern horror tale that cannily picks apart the roots of ownership and its unjust repercussions.