Last year, I greatly enjoyed Brendan Slocumb‘s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy. As soon as I heard about his second book, I could hardly wait. I was overjoyed to get an ARC of his new novel, Symphony of Secrets, which comes out tomorrow, April 18th. His sophomore release is even more impressive and impactful than his first, and is absolutely a book everyone should read.
Special thanks to Goodreads and Anchor Books for providing me with an ARC of this book!
Dr. Bern Hendricks is a leading expert on the 20th century composer Frederic Delaney, from his transcendent early compositions to his slow demise to his tragic end. One of his fabled operas, lost for nearly a century, has now been found, and Bern has the opportunity to get it ready for its debut performance. But in working on this uncovered opera, Bern and his colleague Eboni start to notice things that don’t quite add up. What else was lost to history?
In 1918, Freddy Delaney was unknown but ambitious. One day he met a woman named Josephine Reed, and the two of them formed a bond that would last years and lead to unparalleled success. Soon, Fred’s career takes off… but what is Josephine’s role in all this? And what ultimately happened to her?
Between two timelines, a story of music, race, and power weave together for a timely and impactful mystery.
Symphony of Secrets is such a wonderful book, I don’t even know where to begin this review. Like Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, this one explores music and race against the backdrop of a mystery. However, this novel adds new layers to the power differences, creating for an even more striking story.
The novel is divided into several sections. In the first present day section, we get to know Bern and his colleague Eboni as they work on the long-lost original version of RED. Finally, the famed Frederic Delaney’s masterpiece can be heard the way it was intended to be heard. Bern is not only a leading expert on Delaney, he’s also a huge fan, and thus is extremely excited to work on this RED project. As a music lover myself, I can absolutely understand Bern’s fandom! But as he and Eboni work through the music and “Delaney Doodles,” they come across something befuddling. What’s with the letters “JaR” written on one of the pages? And why are the Delaney Foundation people so cagey about certain things? Bern and Eboni may have discovered something that could change everything.
Then the novel goes back in time to 1918. Freddy wasn’t the most impressive musician then… how would he evolve so quickly? This is when he meets Josephine Reed. She seems odd to those around her: She rarely looks people directly in the eyes, and she describes things rather strangely, and yet she’s also undeniably a musical virtuoso. Freddy hires her to teach him to play better, and this soon leads to a deeper partnership. When he finds out that she writes her own music, though, everything changes. Although Freddy seems nice for taking Josephine in and getting her a job, there’s always a benefit that he gets for each favor. It’s not altruism; it’s a mutually beneficial tradeoff.
Finally we get to see things from Josephine’s perspective. I enjoyed her chapters the most. In her own sections, Josephine’s intelligence and humanity come out more. Fred’s chapters paint her in stranger colors, with his perspective of her odd quirks, but in Josephine’s chapters, we get a sense for her logic and feelings and evolving desires.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but it is heartbreaking to see how people treat Josephine. As a Black and neurodivergent woman, she’s at a huge disadvantage, especially given the era she lives in. The way Fred continually justifies his actions surrounding Josephine and her music… infuriating, maddening, sickening. Does he truly believe he’s making the right choices? Or is he lying to himself as much as he is to others? It devolves so quickly, and it’s painful to see how Fred treats Josephine as time wears on. Freddy goes from a character I thought I felt bad for to a man I grew to dislike to a full-on villain.
In the present day sections, things spiral out of control in their own way. What starts as a friendly and professional collaboration turns into a war zone. Again, we can see how racism plays into what’s happening, both against Bern and Eboni and in regards to Josephine’s buried history. There’s all-too-relevant depictions of several issues that particularly impact people of color today, and we can see the huge amount of power the Delaney Foundation has. The whole present day crescendo and climax is almost over-the-top, but I love it and it makes for a thrilling read.
And of course, one of the cores of Symphony of Secrets is the music itself. I love how musical this is—and I mean in-depth, detailed, technical descriptions. If you play an instrument, can read music, and/or are an aficionado of classical/symphonic/operatic music, this may make sense and add to the reading experience. My music knowledge is good, though maybe not that good, but I loved how music is described here. It’s amazing how Josephine, especially, perceives sound, creates her own music, and writes it down in her incredible, unique form of notation. The book is also rooted in music history of the early 20th century—think ragtime, jazz, blues, and so on. I know my history, and was excited when they mention Tin Pan Alley and major artists of the time. They even get into the business side of the music industry (copyright and royalties and so on), which I also particularly enjoyed.
Symphony of Secrets is a dynamic and powerful novel that is also intersectional. It’s about race, gender, and neurodivergence, about a Black, autistic woman who was a genius and whose voice was taken from her. It may inspire anger, but it may also inspire you to look for more music by people who’ve been unfairly muffled.
Symphony of Secrets is a stunning and inspired novel, and one of my favorite reads this year. In tackling important topics within the context of music, it offers a thoughtful look at who has been heard—and silenced—throughout our musical history. It’s a powerful story, and Brendan Slocumb’s writing is even better than in his first novel. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I already look forward to whatever he puts out next.
Get the Book
You can buy Symphony of Secrets here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|Symphony of Secrets by Brendan Slocumb|
|Genre||Mystery; Thriller; Historical Fiction; Music Fiction|
|Setting||New York City; North Carolina; England; France|
|Number of Pages||448|
|Format I Read||Paperback (ARC)|
|Original Publication Date||April 18, 2023|
Bern Hendricks has just received the call of a lifetime. As one of the world’s preeminent experts on the famed twentieth-century composer Frederick Delaney, Bern knows everything there is to know about the man behind the music. When Mallory Roberts, a board member of the distinguished Delaney Foundation and direct descendant of the man himself, asks for Bern’s help authenticating a newly discovered piece, which may be his famous lost opera, RED, he jumps at the chance. With the help of his tech-savvy acquaintance Eboni, Bern soon discovers that the truth is far more complicated than history would have them believe.
In 1920s Manhattan, Josephine Reed is living on the streets and frequenting jazz clubs when she meets the struggling musician Fred Delaney. But where young Delaney struggles, Josephine soars. She’s a natural prodigy who hears beautiful music in the sounds of the world around her. With Josephine as his silent partner, Delaney’s career takes off—but who is the real genius here?
In the present day, Bern and Eboni begin to uncover more clues that indicate Delaney may have had help in composing his most successful work. Armed with more questions than answers and caught in the crosshairs of a powerful organization who will stop at nothing to keep their secret hidden, Bern and Eboni will move heaven and earth in their dogged quest to right history’s wrongs.
About the Author
Brendan Nicholaus Slocumb was raised in Fayetteville, North
Carolina, and holds a degree in music education (with
concentrations in violin and viola) from the University of North
Carolina at Greensboro. For more than twenty years he has
been a public and private school music educator and has
performed with orchestras throughout Northern Virginia,
Maryland, and Washington, D.C. His first novel, The Violin
Conspiracy, was published in 2022 by Anchor Books. His
second novel, Symphony of Secrets, will be published in 2023
by Anchor Books. He is currently working on his third novel.
More Reviews of Brendan Slocumb’s Books
The Violin Conspiracy
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