Jazz. The themes are laid down, a story old as dirt, a triangular tangle of middle-aged man and wife and young girl with the tragic end at the beginning. “Can’t rival the dead for love. Lose every time.”
Harlem, 1926. The pulse of a city, “in halls and offices people are sitting and thinking future thoughts about projects and bridges and fast-clicking trains underneath”. These people have come north in the Great Migration from the rural south to the northern cities, looking to escape the past, but it shapes their thoughts, desires and possibilities.
The characters take their solos, sing us their songs of love and longing, the lives laid down like railway tracks that have driven them to this sorry destination, each with their own rhythm and voice. Joe, Violet, and Dorcas at the front of the band, with Aunt Alice and best friend Felice also taking their turn. The unnamed narrator sits underneath, the rhythm section, filling the spaces between, driving the story forward, even as it loops back on itself again. “I always believed that girl was a pack of lies.”
When it works, the execution is masterful, fluid, vibrant. But sometimes, for me at least, it crosses that line into self-indulgent too many notes jazz wankery, losing my attention as the variations meander too far off-key and off-rhythm, and I’m hearing it but not feeling it.
Overall, a good but not great novel that riffs on a tragic love story to create a soundscape of African American history.
CBRbingo: Roaring 20s – set in 1920s Harlem