There You Are by Mathea Morais, Amberjack Publishing, 2019, 311 pages, $24.99

Mathea Morais teaches at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and is the new director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts here on the Vineyard but her debut novel, There You Are, is a protracted love-song to St. Louis where she grew up and the thriving music scene whose stars and also-rans provide the soundtrack to this touching and fiercely intelligent book.

There’s a corresponding geographical displacement confronting the reader as the novel begins: Octavian Munroe is an art teacher at toney Winslow Academy for New Beginnings in Berringford, Me. Nearing 40 years old, Octavian is originally from St. Louis and never imagined he’d end up in a place so different from his old neighborhoods.

“He no longer heard heavy basslines out of passing cars, no longer passed out and missed his stop on late-night subway rides.”

Now, a stranger in the north, he’s sure he’s “the one black friend everyone in Berringford claimed to have.”

His work is satisfying, however, and along the way he introduces his students to the music that shaped his own upbringing. “He brought in a turntable and a stack of records,” Ms. Morais winningly puts it, “and tried to use Sonny Rollins, Gregory Isaacs, and The Last Poets to summon the parts of themselves they didn’t even know existed.”

But time has complicated the landscape for Octavian. His students have grown up in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, and the novel’s events take place in the shadow of the 2014 execution of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, where Octavian’s father Cyrus still lives and works as a philosophy professor at Washington University. “He’d seen the crowds that gathered in Michael Brown’s name, felt their collective pulse, like some giant animal.”

As Octavian ruefully notices, these days the old town just doesn’t want to leave him alone. This feeling only intensifies when he receives a text from his father’s old friend Bones, long time the proprietor of the storied St. Louis music store, Rahsaan’s Records, a place “where everything was too bright and familiar for loneliness.”

Bones informs Octavian that he’s decided to close the store after all these years. He’s throwing a going-away party and hopes Octavian will come back home to attend.

It’s a quietly shocking little note. Rahsaan’s was the hub of Octavian’s youth, a kind of island in the midst of the tensions always roiling St. Louis. Right in the middle of all that racial tension, one character comments, “people from all these different places hung out, because it was the one place where it didn’t matter where you came from. Most people eventually ended up at Rahsaan’s. Music is cool like that.”

From this unshakable storytelling archetype — the progeny returns home — Morais crafts a powerfully affecting story of fathers, sons, social change and, of course, the power of music. Octavian’s past at Rahsaan’s was intricately caught up in the life story of another wonderfully-drawn character, Mina Rose, and he knows a return to the Loop will mean a re-opening of that relationship. Likewise Cyrus has taken a concerned interest in a boy who lives next to him. And Cyrus and Octavian have their own issues.

Readers need not be wary of the book’s High Fidelity-level of music saturation. Morais provides “playlists” for the decades over which her story takes place, and every character knows every detail of every B-side ever recorded, but this is a narrative about love and missing things. No hipster pop-quiz is required in order to be moved to tears by passages in the novel.

And as a testament to the power of music to bind people together, the book is even more effective than Arthur Phillips’ The Song Is You from a decade ago. 

There will be a book party for the publication of There You Are on Saturday, Nov. 2 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Featherstone Center for the Arts. Everyone is invited to dress as their favorite musical icon or to wear their favorite band T-shirt. Copies of There You Are will be available for purchase.