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Twelve Bar Blues is an ambitious, intelligent and at times a very funny novel that spans centuries and continents. It tells the story of a set of people connected to each other by history and circumstance. In the first of three stories that weave in and out of each other through the course of the novel we follow the life of Lick Holden a young musician in 1920s New Orleans trying to make his way in the burgeoning jazz scene. In the second we meet Sylvia Di Napoli a 40 something black Italian-American ex prostitute and retired singer brought up in England who with the help of her new companion a young English drifter named Jim is looking for her roots and in the third we are taken to modern Africa to follow the adventures of Tongo a young African chieftain struggling to cope with his tribal responsibilities, his feisty wife and his best friend a dope smoking sex obsessed witchdoctor named Musa.
The glue that binds the narratives together is music more specifically Jazz.
Neate is an engaging writer and manages to adapt his style to suit each of the different scenarios he explores. When writing about Lick and his family in the roughest black neighbourhood of New Orleans Cooltown, his writing is dynamic, almost electric. This is a place populated by larger than life characters, fearsome knife wielding prostitutes, petty criminals, drunks and drug addicts all frequenting the low life honky-tonk bars of New Orleans. This is the time when Jazz was born and musicians like Lick first saw music as a way of freeing themselves from their circumstances. A time of a young Lou Armstrong, King Oliver and other Jazz legends. Music could lift peoples spirits and for a short time they forgot the hunger, poverty, violence and crime that was an everyday fact of life. Lick struggles to survive and to keep his young siblings alive but it is the love he feels for his sister (who wasnt no blood relation) that is pivotal to his life.
The section of the book dealing with the story of Sylvia Di Napoli is more sombre in the way its written and like a blues lament we follow the rather sad figure of Sylvia a woman who has spent her life trading on her looks and getting involved with tragic relationships. Now approaching middle age she is looking for something, she feels that her life has always been a lie, she is obviously of black extraction but both her parents were white Italian American, obviously the key to this mystery and the truth about who she really is will be revealed once she traces back her distant origins.
The final strand of the story is set in modern Africa in the imaginary country of Zambawi (a thinly disguised Zimbabwe) amongst the Zimindo tribe. Tongo the young chief is an educated man, westernised in his thinking and with a love of Jazz. Reluctantly he has to adapt to the traditions of his position in the tribe. Hes kept on his toes by his strong willed wife and runs into trouble when he flirts with the good looking American archaeologist that visits the tribe in search of the secrets of the ancient Zimido. This third strand to the story is the most comical and ventures in to the realms of magical realism when focusing on the journeys of Musa (both real and imaginary) and his various exploits.
I loved this book and I was totally captivated by the characters. It is tribute to Neates skills as a writer that I was totally convinced with the different voices that he used to relate the story. He took on different styles with ease and the narrative cleverly swaps from one to the other although there are enough clues interspersed in the story to lead you to think that at some stage there is bound to be some revelations that will ties the stories together.
Neate is a respected music journalist and it would seem obvious on reading this novel that Neate also has a love of Jazz, his descriptions of the street life and music of new Orleans is fabulous and he really brings the dingy black night clubs where jazz was born to life however in interviews he has stated that even though the novel is
"all based around jazz but that is not really my passion. I am fascinated by the origins of jazz and the stories around it,"
This makes his achievement in writing with such passion about the music even more surprising. More than in any other novel I can think of Neate manages to convey the exhilarating feeling of hearing music into words.
Neate also manage to skilfully mix fact with fiction so many of the dates and references as well as the characters in the New Orleans section of the novel are real that the fictional side of the story is given extra credibility. Music is clearly the device that the author uses to cement the story but another important theme of the book is that of identity and how that is influenced by ones idea of race. We discover that even in the poorest black communities of early 20th century America a hierarchy depending on the shade of blackness that one has. Much is made about whether someone is a quarter, half, three quarter black and where the white black women are the most prized prostitutes.
In the case of Sylvia Di Napoli her own personal journey of discovery (almost like a pilgrimage to a hidden past life), which takes her to London, New York and Chicago relies on her uncovering the roots of her blackness so as to make a connection with what she feels to be her true identity rather than the identity she was given at birth.
In the third segment of the novel the problem for Tongo is to balance his traditional African roots with his instinctive liking for modern lifestyle, this is contrasted by the black American archaeologist he lusts after, she is seeking to find her African roots and Neate makes the point that sometimes dispossessed people have a stronger feel for their heritage and lost traditions that those who are still steeped within them.
Twelve Bar Blues is an intelligent book exploring many different facets of race, identity and the emotional power and influence of music but most of all its a funny, at times moving always riveting read. In fact like the best jazz the different strands of the story wind their way through the ether like a collection or disparate notes played by competing musicians eventually coming together to produce sublime music.
Twelve Bar Blues deservedly won the 2001 Whitbread Novel Prize narrowly beating another great read Ian McEwans Atonement to the post.
Twelve Bar Blues can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £6.39 (+p&p).
Highly recommended (no knowledge or love of jazz required)!
© Mauri 2005
Spanning three continents and two centuries Twelve Bar Blues is an epic tale of jazz and juju, fate, family and friendship which finally unfolds in the Louisiana bayou...At its heart is Lick Holden, a young jazz musician, in 1900 New Orleans. The story of Lick's search for his step-sister echoes throughout the other stories in the book - of Sylvia, the English hooker and Jim her young companion; of the mysterious seashell head-dress; of Musa, the itinerant witchdoctor and of Tongo, the frustrated African chief. And all of this structured around the harmonic progression of the 12 bar blues...