By: John Sims Jeter
Reviewed by: Elaine Hughes
Livingston Press, 2007
In his first novel, John Sims Jeter succeeds in weaving a narrative that melds together varied art forms—classical music, poetry, architecture, blues, baseball—into a symphony of nature that resonates with the lyrical voices of his characters. Jeter, a recently retired mathematician, professional engineer, and native of Birmingham, combines his love of music with his insights into “humanness” in creating a novel about the maturation of a Southern boy, a story that transcends the limitations of geography and reality and transports the reader to that realm that only the arts can convey. . . . and the angels sang depicts the narrator’s journey from rural beginnings to the cosmopolitan circles of culture in New York and in Europe, back home to his roots in Helicon, Alabama.
The three-part structure of the novel—Music, Poetry, Nature—begins with the return of Jon Simmons Bernier to his rural home in South Alabama “to visit the country churchyard cemetery and tidy up the family plot.” Dealing with grief in his life, his introspection turns to recollections of the names he views on the decaying headstones—the families whose lives intertwined with his in the small community where his father was the only doctor and ministered to all, where his mother imparted her love of classical music to children, and where he discovered his first love—other than baseball. Jon’s reminiscences trace his journey to adulthood, his attempts to reconnect with that first love—Elsbeth Simmons Yearout—who has become a world-renowned concert pianist, and his discoveries of life’s cruelties.
The second section, Poetry, depicts Jon’s chance meeting with Helena Poulos, “a ringlet crowned Greek goddess,” about whom he thinks of Christopher Marlowe’s line, “Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?” His life with Helena, though brief, is filled with the lyrical passion of music and words, as she, like Beth Yearout, is an accomplished musician.
In Nature, Jon turns to other sources as he attempts to recover his sense of purpose in a seemingly senseless world filled with grief. He finds solace in the arms and in the life of Gayle Farrell, whose understanding of the cyclical nature of life and of family re-directs him to his quest for meaning in his life. As he searches for answers to those questions about his own beginnings, his roots, his journey takes him full circle back to Helicon.
John Sims Jeter’s narration in . . . and the angels sang is lyrical, sensitive, suspenseful, insightful. As the narrator says of the description of music, “I tell the story of love, the story of sorrow, the story that saves and the story that destroys . . .” Jeter’s first novel does all that.
Elaine Hughes is Professor of English at the University of Montevallo and recipient of the 2007 Eugene Current-Garcia Award for Alabama’s Distinquished Scholar.