By Toni Morrison. I read this novel in June and then reread most of it again in July, because it is just so complex and rich that I couldn’t write a review after just one read. My review contains spoilers, so I’m putting it under the cut. As all the previous novels by Morrison, I loved this one too. I strongly recommend it, it’s very engaging and lively.
Why is the novel called Jazz? It is because the main part of the story is set in the 1920s, the Jazz age. The music is part of the setting, a city (presumably Harlem). The notes float over the roofs of the city and wind their way into the characters’ minds.
Another reason for the title is, I believe, the structure of the novel, which seems to echo a Jazz piece. In the first section, we get the bare bones of the main story: Joe, who is married to Violet, has an affair with the much younger Dorcas, who leaves him whereupon he shoots her. She dies and Violet tries to cut up her face at the funeral. In later sections, this story is fleshed out and embellished with the backstory of these four main characters and others. It’s like a Jazz musician improvising on the main theme.
And then there’s the narrator, who is self-confessed unreliable, who makes things up just like a musician improvising. It is not clear who the narrator is. They have “limited” dreams and think that Joe and Violet will end up killing each other, but quite the opposite happens. The narrator acknowledges that they were misguided. Maybe the narrator is the voice of an instrument that is waiting to speak of love and can be made to do so through someone’s hands:
“If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because, look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.”
From Jazz, by Toni Morrison, the last few sentences in the book
The novel is short, just 229 pages in my 1993 Picador paperback edition and a quick read, but so full of life, with characters and their stories, that I needed to read it twice, as I felt I’d missed too much in my first reading.
There’s Joe, whose parents left without a trace (thus his last name, Trace), who grew up a skilled hunter, and hunted for his mother and his lover. He likes women and is kind to them, including his wife, Violet. Violet also grew up in the rural South, but later moved to the city with Joe. They build a good life, but become estranged when Violet, who couldn’t have children, started pining for one and neglected Joe. Violet never used to want to have children, as she had felt a burden to her mother, who committed suicide and left her children to be brought up by her mother, True Belle, who fed them stories of the boy Golden, the illegitimate child of a rich white woman and the black hunter who taught Joe. Golden saved Wild, Joe’s mother, just as she gave birth to Joe, but what became of them afterwards remains hidden. Joe, anyway, may have felt abandoned by his mother, as he later feels abandoned and betrayed by his young lover Dorcas.
There’s Dorcas, who doesn’t want to be treated kindly and who lets herself die through blood loss after Joe shoots her in the shoulder. She was brought up strictly by her aunt Alice, who, oddly, after her funeral becomes friends with Violet. Maybe Dorcas never recovered from the loss of her parents, one brutally beaten to death and one burnt alive.
There’s Violet, who, having lost Joe to the affair and also to his grief over Dorcas’ death, tries to take her revenge by cutting the dead girl’s face at the funeral, but is prevented from doing so by the funeral guests. In trying to find out more about Dorcas, she meets Alice and the two of them become friends. At the end, she and Joe are reconciled and have a renewed loving marriage through the intercession of Dorcas’ friend Felice, who tells Joe that Dorcas let herself die by not allowing medical attention. Violet had to get rid of a false sense of self, inside her, that was focused on youth, beauty, and whiteness to become her real self, one she could like, before she could become happy with Joe again.
All this and more is told in the novel, against a backdrop of history: race riots, segregation, dispossession, Jazz and life in the 1920s. But this backdrop never takes centre stage, it is always the characters, their life, emotions, and growth that are the focus of the novel.
Like in Beloved, where Paul D and Sethe find new love and hope, at the end of Jazz, Joe and Violet find new love and hope. Despite its sometimes dark and serious subject matter, the book is life-affirming and joyful. I loved it and I’m sure I’ll find new insights to delight in whenever I reread it.
As ever, my review has only touched the surface of this great novel. In my list of Morrison’s novels, it comes in just below Beloved:
- Song of Solomon
- The Bluest Eye
- Tar Baby