Book Review – Jazz by Toni Morrison

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was convinced that I wouldn’t manage to complete my Spell the Month reading challenge in July. I’d struggled to find a J title anyway and then I’d left it to the last minute. I figured this would be a quick one but I just couldn’t get myself in the reading mood. Thankfully, on Friday I managed get myself sorted and finish the baby off with time to spare. It’s a book that I hadn’t read before. In fact, I’ve not read nearly enough Toni Morrison. I’m glad to have finally crossed this off my TBR.

Jazz is the second book in Toni Morrison’s trilogy about African-American history. It follows on from Beloved and moves onto Paradise. Jazz takes us to Harlem in the 1920s and discusses the lives of a married couple and the woman who got in between them. The sweeping narrative takes us through their history, so we span various decades and geographical locations. It might be a short novel but there is plenty to unpack here. Taking after the musical style referenced in the title, this is a complex story that weaves in and out of itself. It’s a very sumptuous and indulgent novel that encapsulates everything that Jazz music is about.

Joe Trace is a door-to-door salesman working for a make-up company. He is married to Violet and has been having an affair with a much younger woman. An affair that ends when he shoots her. During the young woman’s funeral, Violet stabs the corpse. She then becomes obsessed with finding out everything she can about Dorcas, the girl who tempted her husband away. Already seen as quite an odd person in the neighbourhood, Violet’s actions make her stand out even more. As she tries to repair her relationship with her husband, Morrison explores the history of each character, so we can find out where they came from.

Though the major focus of the novel is the love triangle of Joe, Violet and Dorcas, Morrison interweaves the stories of plenty of other people. Through a series of random associations and digressions, Morrison paints a complex picture of African-American history. The story moves from 1920s Harlem all the way back to the 9th century. We meet Violet and Joe’s mothers as well as the people on the periphery of their marriage. The stories are told from different points of view and repeated throughout the novel. Some characters tell their own stories while others are told for them. It all builds to create an ensemble that’s full of life and humanity.

This approach really does allow Morrison to mirror the abstract and layered nature of jazz music. Themes are repeated and changed slightly. The narratives are fragmented and split up. The story is being told like a piece of music being improvised by the musicians. It is this that allows Morrison to capture the feeling of Harlem during the 20s and the spirit of the age. Her prose is equally layered and beautiful. The descriptive passages are indulgent and sensuous. Colours are important and the imagery shows the duality of music. On the one hand, it is something that offers freedom and restoration. On the other, it is seen as a corruptive force that is leading young people astray. This is a novel that uses music to speak about a very specific point in history.

Of course, it’s also a book that deals with the history of the African-American people. We explore the violent history that Black people have faced and it does it with a very matter-of-fact tone. This isn’t trying to make the narrative too emotional but just to state the facts. Violence kicks off the novel and it is a repeated theme throughout the different stories. As is motherhood. Or the absence of it. As a link to the removal of slaves from Africa which severed their ties to their homeland. The lack of parents is a metaphor for the displacement of these characters. Violence and a lack of family ties are an inevitable part of African-American history.

As you would expect with Morrison, this is an assured and beautiful novel. She creates these strong characters and uses them to explore the history of a race in America. The language flows and turns like music in a score. Each player turning up when they need to and staying in the background when necessary. Each person playing their own tune and giving the piece a different tone. It’s a brilliantly crafted piece and is definitely worth putting the effort into.

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