About the Book
An idol of Afro-punk. A duo on the brink of stardom. A night that will define their story for ever.
Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Despite her unconventional looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her one night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together.
In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially Black women, who dare to speak their truth.
Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter, but as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens everything.
Format: Hardcover (368 pages) Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 20th April 2021 Genre: Fiction
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The book uses as a framing device a series of interviews conducted by editor of Aural magazine, Sunny Shelton, as research for a book about the career of Opal Jewel and Nev Charles she has pitched to the magazine’s owner. The book is to be ‘the definitive unpacking of the whos, hows and whys’ surrounding an event which not only became legendary in the music scene and beyond, but also had a profound impact on Sunny’s own life.
The interviewees range from Opal and Nev themselves to Nev’s childhood piano teacher, his first girlfriend, the owner of the record label that first signed Nev, and many more. This structure allows the author to create a multitude of narrative voices; a veritable polyphony, in fact. (I’ve been waiting a long time to use that word in a review!) My favourite was Virgil La Fleur, Opal’s longtime friend and personal stylist, responsible for some of Opal’s most flamboyant costumes. On meeting Opal’s considerably more straight-laced sister Pearl for the first time, he remarks, “She had a beautiful bosom, trés impressionant, and it deserved the proper décolletage but was covered in the saddest textile. There was nude pantyhose paired with sensible low-heeled shoes… Abominations, darling.” Can’t you just hear his waspish tone?
There are so many interesting touches in the book. For example (in my proof copy at least), the capitalization of the word ‘Black’ (in the same way you would capitalize the word ‘American’ or ‘Italian’ to describe the members of a nation) so the word becomes something more than just a skin colour. Or the notes at the bottom of some pages detailing the invented afterlives of the interviewees. And the author has fun giving Opal the opportunity to rub shoulders with real life figures from the world of music and film, even to inspire them in some cases.
Always in the background is the issue of race: segregation, discrimination and racial unrest. For example, the author has Opal and her sister grow up in the shadow of real life events such as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 and the 12th Street Riot in Detroit in 1967. Opal experiences direct racism in her career and it is the issue of race which provokes the incident which will come to dominate her career.
The author has given herself a hard job in bringing Nev out of the shadow of the luminous and effervescent Opal, even if Nev’s later commercial success brings him more of the trappings of stardom – and the temptations that go with them. I did warm to him, though, in the section in which he writes poignant letters to Opal from rehab which, for reasons the reader will discover, she returns unopened. And, of course, it is Nev who first spots Opal’s talent – ‘She was the difference I wanted… Opal was the one’ and in the face of vigorous opposition, champions her signing as vocalist on his first album.
I guess the one thing lacking for me was being able to imagine what Opal & Nev’s music actually sounded like although, to be fair, that would be difficult for any author to achieve. I could get the essence of the rock element but found it harder to conjure up the punk part; and I confess I’d never heard of ‘Afro-punk’ before reading this book. However, perhaps that says more about my lack of knowledge of the New York City music scene in the 1970s than the author’s literary ability. The nearest I got to feeling the energy their music must have created for an audience is in the description of their performance at the ‘final revival’ of the title.
In her author’s note, Dawnie reveals that in writing the book she set out to create a particular Black hero – ‘An antsy iconoclast seizing her moment in a wild, messy era of New York City… She would be wild and messy too. Hard core in her confidence, her politics, her sound.’ I can safely say that in Opal Jewel she has definitely achieved that objective. For me, Opal is so much more than the ‘edgy B story to Nev Charles’s A’.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is a hugely impressive debut, full of inventiveness and fizzing with energy. Someone definitely needs to make a film of this and release the soundtrack album!
I received a proof copy courtesy of Quercus as part of the #Quercus2021 Showcase.
In three words: Inventive, vibrant, assured
About the Author
Dawnie Walton was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2018) and holds a journalism degree from Florida A&M University (1997). Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly, she has received fellowships in fiction writing from MacDowell and the Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband. (Photo/bio credit: Publisher author page)