Book Review | White Tears by Hari Kunzru

W H I T E  T E A R S

Hari Kunzru

M Y  R A T I N G
4 / 5

P U B L I S H E D 
14 March 2017

Hari Kunzru's White Tears is a brilliant indictment of white appropriation of black music that juxtaposes privilege with oppression in Kunzru's very readable prose.

I was expecting a lot of things from this novel and I got all of them in a way that was completely unexpected. The book addresses the growing issue of white people stealing black music. The boys in the novel truly believe they love blues music but soon learn that you can't claim to love something without making some attempt to learn about where it came from.

T H E  P L O T

White Tears follows two young men who develop an obsession with blues records that ultimately leads to their demise. Carter, a charming and popular boy steeped in privilege and air to his father's fortune, who is able to wave a credit card like a magic wand making anything he wants appear. Then there's Seth, a poor loner who sorts of drifts around in the background unnoticed and is just grateful for every scrap of attention Carter gives him.

The story is about how their affinity for music from the past, specifically blues music by black artists, turns into a tale of revenge in which the ghosts of the music they crave begins to haunt them and destroy their lives.

When the two leave University, they move to New York and start up their own production company making music that sounds just like it was recorded in the past. Things are going well until Carter becomes obsessed with a track stitched together from some of the many recording walks Seth goes on. However, Seth has no recollection of even hearing the singing or the guitar playing. They upload the song onto the internet under a fake name, Charlie Shaw, and then begins the downward spiral.

From then we see two stories running in parallel with each other, one a story of a record collector from the past whose life begins to unravel after coming into contact with the Charlie Shaw record and the present where we see Seth's ongoing battle with reality and the spirit of Charlie shaw.

From then on, we see the novel break into magical realism with Seth being possed and forced into actions that aren't his own. Where a man climbs into his through and he momentarily loses the privilege of his white skin. All these events leave the eerie shadow of the life of Charlie Shaw.
Seth feels as if he is walking down a path he has walked before. it is as if he is not driving events but instead, the things happening to him have already been set in stone and there is nothing he can do.


The story is ultimately a tale of appropriation. Both Carter and Seth claim to love the music they collect, sometimes even going as far as to say they own it.

"These fuckers think this music was made in 1928," scoffs Carter, "but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who's the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!"

Yet neither one makes an effort to learn the history behind it. There is a lack of black voices in this novel and I think that was a deliberate move on the author's part. Seth keeps trying to talk to Charlie, to tell him this isn't all his fault, that none of the terrible things that happened to him can be blamed on him. But what this book tells us is that the injustices in America's past belong to all Americans. That in enjoying the privileges built off oppression, even Seth has a part to play.

Carter sees black music as being more authentic than anything else and I think it’s because as a rich white boy he feels his life is hollow and thin and hopes to capture something real that he’s missing. There’s also this guilt mixed in with this, he thinks through his obsession he's atoning for the sins of his race. I didn't feel like Seth and Carter were in love with the music at all. There was a lack of connection for me. Usually, music is something that's felt in your heart and your soul. It's passionate. It's not something you try and own. It's free and it moves people. Seth and Carter are more interested in collecting expensive original music that actually understanding the pain the music was born out of, or even to learn about the artists behind it.

Kunzru links slavery and convict-leasing to the events we see unfolding today particularly in places like Ferguson where parking tickets and broken tail lights are used as guises to swallow black people into the system where they are exploited by the industrial prison complex. It becomes a story of power. Who has it and who doesn't. I think many white people today do not want to apologise for the sins of their ancestors giving the argument, "I didn't do it, I'm not going to apologise for something I didn't do." These same people are the ones still benefits from the sins of their fathers while the same mechanisms that oppressed people of colour in the past may have taken on a new form, but they are still the same chains of oppression. But instead of an overt subjugation, oppression is buried in broken tail lights and resisting arrest.

Sexual Objectification 

Another interesting angle in the novel can be seen in Carter's older sister, blue-eyed and blonde haired Leonie Wallace, the object of every man's affection. Leonie seems to own her sexuality but at the same time feels trapped by it. Seth is, of course, obsessed with Leonie and I feel in the same way he is obsessed with the blues he is struck with the idea of Leonie, what he wants to do with her, to her and he mistakes objectification, lust for love. He claims he loves Leonie but it's clear he just wants to possess her. Just like the music he loves, he thinks he loves her but he makes no effort to know her.
Seth is interesting to me. Leonie says to him. She tells Seth that:

"Sometimes you're with a guy and you know you're the only door he'll leave through."

He pretends not to hear and then she tells him, "Take what you want." And Seth acts like many of the men before him and takes what he wants from her.

I think this subplot is a commentary on the way men feel entitled to women's bodies, especially the so-called 'nice guys' when deep down their actions are just as deplorable as the men they claim to be so far from.

White Tears is a story about how the past affects the present and reminds us that we can't escape history. It is probably the best ghost story I've ever read and a wonderful and insightful read.