Novels about rock music have not always been successful. In fact, they have rarely been successful. There’s something about the subject matter that defies literary capture – perhaps because it is already too cartoonish, too cliched, to survive the transplant from one artistic field to another.
Few authors have the skill to skirt the siren swamp of cheesiness and stereotype and deliver something worthwhile. What space does the decadent, ant-snorting chaos of Ozzy Osbourne’s life leave for fiction? Or the production line of shrink-wrapped boybands? Is there any darker idea than the 27 Club? What could be more extreme than the Mötley Crüe autobiography?
And yet, in recent years there has been a consistently fine run of such novels – David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue, rock ’n’ roll sci-fi set amid the unspooling freedoms of the 1960s; Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which leans heavily on Fleetwood Mac’s story; Jennifer Egan’s much-celebrated A Visit From the Goon Squad; Alan Warner’s latest, Kitchenly 434.
The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton easily takes a place on this list. It is the story of Opal Jewel, who explodes on to the 1970s New York scene with a howl of Afro-punk rage, and Neville Charles, a gifted but goofy young British songwriter who becomes her partner. The events that saw the pair reach the brink of stardom before their career was derailed by social and racial conflict are told in retrospect, through a series of interviews by S Sunny Curtis, a young magazine editor whose late father drummed on their records.
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In the modern day, Opal is a recluse while Nev has gone on to become a Phil Collins-style solo star. The pair do not speak, and their long-ago split is shrouded in mystery. It is something to do with a murder that occurred at their final concert. Curtis sets out to discover the truth.
Opal has lost none of her edge, though. “I understand what people are really trying to ask me is this,” she tells Curtis. “‘How did a woman so black and so ugly manage to believe she could be somebody?’” Those who were around her at the height of her fame remember her differently, as something extraordinary, all shaved head and dazzling conceptual outfits: “Like a page from Vogue magazine come to life”; “She was like a holiday on Mars”.
Walton has delivered a thoughtful page-turner that locks into its groove early on, and offers a timely exploration of both feminist agency and America’s seemingly insoluble problem with race.
The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton is out now (Quercus, £14.99)