It is 1943, and Sydney is alive with swirling leaves and the cries of flying fruit bats. There’s a war bond rally in Martin Place, and the dimpled harbor shines brightly in the summer sun. The
city is full of American servicemen who pick up local women and prostitutes out to score “a greenback or two.“ As the rain “drums a soft syncopation” like the
jazz music that eighteen-year-old Pearl Willis so loves, behind it all is her
passion of performing saxophone in the Trocadero, the biggest and best ballroom in the Southern Hemisphere.
There her twin brother, Martin, also plays second tenor in the men’s big band.
In the opening pages of Love in the Years of Lunacy, Sayer peels back the layers of love and war, the years defined by tragedy
and the brutality of racial segregation. A year after her death, Pearl’s grown nephew plays a series of cassette tapes
that inspire him to write a memoir of his aunt’s first love, focusing on the night she lost her virginity to a handsome black American GI in Sydney’s famous amusement park. Australia’s first Indigenous
crime writer, the nephew’s own origins take on a different form as he retreats into the consoling memory of Pearl’s passionate teenage affair with Private James Washington, where she pleads for him to teach her his gift for playing jazz.
Willfully turning back fifty years in the quest to fall in love and to once more be in love again, Pearl remembers James telling her about Artie Shaw and Count Basie’s band in Kansas City, where she’s fueled by something more indefinable: “the electric lunacy of love.” James is a theatrical voice, but through his dramatic filter, Pearl is never quite sure where she stands. As the Pacific War edges ever closer to Australia’s shores,
he tells her of the racism in his own country. Blushing at her own naivety, Pearl realizes why James won’t walk arm in arm with her down a city street and why he refuses to kiss her in public.
What follows is a breathless account of Pearl and James’s first charged encounters, which set Pearl’s mother, Clara, on edge. Like many women of her generation, she wants her daughter to marry a professional white man, someone like gentle-eyed Hector. After a mental breakdown and a stint in therapy, Pearl remains obsessed with James. She’s no longer that carefree young girl who frequented “sly grog joints in Kings Cross” and made love in an abandoned mansion. She once thought of herself as a woman of a world, but now her younger self seems immature and childish.
When James is shipped out to New Guinea with the parting comment “you know we couldn’t make it together--forever,” Pearl knows that nothing will ever break the mysterious force binding them. This recovered fantasy of lust and love will apparently wipe everything else clean. James’s image is conjured with such poetic fervor and tangible fleshly desire that, in comparison, Pearl’s insecurities seem pale and insubstantial. In an unexpected plot twist, Pearl is suddenly moving toward everything she knows she can’t live without. Her decision to follow James sets her on a path to the adventures she longs to have, the jazz she yearns to play, and the only man she’s ever loved.
Displaying a fondness for sentiment, Sayer keeps her romantic narrative moving, filling it with vivid period details of Sydney and New Guinea and sprinkling it with a magic that makes her research spring to life. Bathed in an evocative light, Pearl holds her alto in her hands and mouth as if embracing “an old lover from whom she’s been separated for years.” While playing for the Pacific Entertainment Unit against the jagged silhouettes of bombed buildings, flattened houses, and overturned jeeps, Sayer places Pearl’s love songs to the lonely soldiers against her enduring love for James, the music becoming a curious hybrid of everything James had taught her, “the suggestible, vulnerable life force that is no one else’s but her own.”