First published in 1992 and appearing to be out of print, I came across The Sound of Heaven because I picked up Joseph Olshan’s most recent book, The Conversion, in a bookstore back in December. I was immediately captivated by the cover and after reading the inside flap, I knew I wanted to read the book. I didn’t buy it that day, but instead thought about it weeks later and looked it up on Amazon to add to my Wish List so I wouldn’t forget it again.
I then clicked on the author’s name to see what else he’d written and that’s how I found The Sound of Heaven. It’s description on Amazon is brief, but again, I was so drawn to the book’s cover that I didn’t care. I added it to my Wish List as well. Four months later, I purchased both of these books for myself.
My copy of The Sound of Heaven came from overseas. It’s a hard cover that’s seen better days. The front matter of the book is completely missing. And the dust jacket has been sealed to the book with clear contact paper. I couldn’t help but wonder who had loved this book so much that they decided to preserve it this way, and eventually part with it. Needless to say, I’m glad they did.
The Sound of Heaven is part romance and part family saga. The reader is introduced to James and Diana, an American couple who are dating while living in Rome. Their relationship is intense, passionate, and also rocky because James has revealed to Diana that he is bisexual and has had intimate relations with men. This makes Diana uncomfortable despite the fact that James has promised to be committed to her.
We are then treated to glimpses into both James’s and Diana’s family lives. Diana’s parents are getting ready to retire to Florida. She’s also haunted by the death of her brother. James was sexual abused by his father well into his teens, and first explored sex with a female cousin who lived with his family for a brief time. Both James and Diana are emotionally fragile, so when they meet the relation felt between them is not always healthy.
The book passes between the past and present, but is easy to follow. The two return to New York and their relationship fizzles out. Diana begins seeing another man, whose presence in the story is minimal, but also not important. And James discovers that he is HIV positive. The reader has already been treated to a serious relationship James shared with a man named Brian who works in a funeral home. The reader also knows, before James does, that Brian has passed away from AIDS. We then follow James on a painful journey of reconnecting with his past, and Diana, to inform her that she needs to get tested.
Olshan uses art, music, and obviously death to build his themes that are presented here. James and Diana fall in love in Rome. James is an oboe player. They both appreciate Caravaggio. At home, James practiced his oboe to keep his father away from him, almost like a snake charmer. Diana battles with the thought that her brother committed suicide. Brian was a mortician. Death is the inevitable, but the author keeps his characters and his readers away from it for as long as he can. Eventually, the past catches up with all of us.
The Sound of Heaven is beautiful. Beautifully written. It’s a slow genius read, that while at times anti-climactic, gives you the pleasure of connecting with its characters on a level we don’t often get to reach with a book. The copy I had the pleasure of receiving has found its permanent home amongst my collection, and this book will stay with me forever, in more ways than one.