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 Harlem 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.