‘Jazz’ by Toni Morrison

Complex, syncopated, sensuous, Nobel Literature prize-winning Toni Morrison explores, in her sixth novel, aspects of African-American history, with the majority of the narrative taking place in HarlemĀ during the 1920s. But, as the histories of various characters come to the fore, so the novel travels back in time to the mid-19th century and slavery of the Deep South.

A quiet, married man, Joe Trace unexpectedly finds himself in an affair with the much younger Dorcas. Yet he shoots and kills the impetuous eighteen year old. Refusing to involve the police – and knowing that the justice will be for Joe to carry the guilt of his actions for the rest of his life – her guardian, the religious Alice Manfred, does not look for revenge. Violet Trace attacks the young woman’s body in church – and then eventually settles into a begrudging domesticity with Joe and a fledgling friendship with Alice.

But Jazz is no sensationalist murder mystery or family melodrama. Instead, the novel swoops and dips, in and out of current and earlier lives of Joe, Violet, Alice, Dorcas. Narration of events is freeform, the unreliablity of the telling of events dependent upon consciousness and varying emotions and concerns.

Thus Joe and Violet’s early years as cotton pickers in Virginia and move to New York at the turn of the century are juxtaposed with the murder, separately, of Dorcas’ parents in East St Louis: the glass ceiling successes of Joe Trace as a door-to-door salesman sit side-by-side with Violet, as an unlicensed hair stylist, traipsing round Harlem, in and out of kitchens, parlours and the like.

Built around the hopes, fears and realities of black urban life of 1920s New York, Jazz is, with its fractured timescales and fluid movements of individual narration, challenging. It needs to be savoured, slowly digested – like jazz itself, it’s made up of numerous layers and complexities building tension that demand, on occasions, to be returned to. Frequently, I found myself returning to a paragraph or page in recognising several different perspectives, increasing the level of understanding of what Morrison was saying.

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale

A startlingly good debut novel, English Passengers is compassionate yet pointed, laugh-out-loud funny but devastatingly earnest, a yarn of high adventure but faithful, in the appropriate places, to historical accuracy.

It’s 1857 and the pompous, overbearing Reverend Geoffrey Wilson believes he has found the true site of the Garden of Eden: Tasmania, the other side of the world from his quiet English parish. Securing patronage for an expedition, his small team (three) includes Dr Potter, bent on making a name for himself through his (dangerous) racial theories and phrenological studies. Too much in a hurry, the expedition charters the Sincerity, available immediately. Unbeknownst to Wilson, the Sincerity is a Manx (Isle of Man) smuggling boat stashed with brandy and tobacco and, on the run from British customs, is unable to off-load its illegal cargo.

The many months on the high seas aboard the Sincerity provides much adventure for crew and explorers alike. Captain Kewley is desperate to dump his passengers, sell his contraband and return to home port. The original intention was to merely sail from the Isle of Man to Maldon, north east of London, and back – a journey of a week or two. Now, fleeing the British, Cape Colony (modern day Cape Town) turns out to be the first port of call after months at sea before Melbourne and Hobart, their final destination.

Interspersed within the caustic, humourous tale of Kewley, Wilson, Potter et al is the significantly angrier tone of life on Tasmania in the years leading to the arrival of the Sincerity. The indigenous islanders had fought a desperate battle of survival but have been all but wiped out by the British. As the Tasmanian narrator, the mixed-race Peevay guides us through the horrors of the first half of the 19th century.

The result of rape, a blonde-haired Peevay is rejected by his warrior mother but spends most of his life desperate to win her approval – whether through the earlier years of battling the British or, later, resettled on the death trap island colony of Flinders. But Kneale also comments on the bizarre cruelties inflicted upon the convicts sentenced to Port Arthur and other internment centres on the island. And, through inclusion of the occasional letter, diary entry or official report from governors, clerics and wives, he also provides a sense of the official establishment’s perspective at the time.

By the time the expedition arrives, Peevay is an old man. The incompentence of the so-called intrepid explorers is about to be highlighted as Peevay finds himself their guide to the wilds of western Tasmania: the island is far from the envisaged earthly paradise of Wilson’s dreams.

English Passengers is, quite simply, a glorious (and admittedly, unexpected) tale, the mix of humour, pathos, moral purpose, ironic observation and fine storytelling perfectly attuned. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, it lost out to The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. But it was also shortlisted for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award, losing out to to Frank Moorhouse and Dark Palace. Peter Carey (True History of the Kelly Gang), Tim Winton (Dirt Music), Kate Grenville (The Secret River) and Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) are the only other writers to achieve this.