The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson , et al (rated 5/5)

Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Speculative, Alt. History

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
by Dawnie Walton

Hardcover (30 Mar 2021), 368 pages.
(Due out in paperback Mar 2022)
Publisher: 37 Ink
ISBN-13: 9781982140168

A kaleidoscopic fictional oral history of the beloved rock 'n' roll duo who shot to fame in 1970s New York, and the dark, fraught secret that lies at the peak of their stardom.

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can't imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar's amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

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 to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we've not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

The publisher was unable to provide an excerpt of this book.


This fierce fictional rock 'n' roll biography charts the careers of a 1970s duo who pushed racial boundaries.

Print Article

Within the general arc of many well-established and chronicled historical events is oral history's wonderful ability to home in on nuances, illuminating particular situations and personalities that perhaps couldn't find room in other tellings, but come alive here. Studs Terkel accomplished this with the Great Depression and World War II. Svetlana Alexievich has shined much-needed light on World War II from Russia's perspective, as well as Chernobyl and the country's post-Soviet Union life. And there have been other great oral history accounts relating to television, genres of music, world events, slavery and Reconstruction, and so much more.

The challenge of fictional oral history is to make it feel convincing enough that it coheres with the established historical record. Taylor Jenkins Reid achieved this with the faux music biography Daisy Jones & The Six (2019). While the band it describes bears similarities to Fleetwood Mac, the novel was very much its own towering foray into rock 'n' roll history.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton's first novel (and may there be dozens more), lifts off under its own majestic, creative power, and quickly achieves a spectacular altitude. It takes the form of an oral history book curated by prominent music journalist and editor Sunny Curtis, who has a tragic connection to Opal Jewel, one half of the revered and controversial '70s duo Opal & Nev. Her father, respected drummer Jimmy Curtis, had an affair with Opal while married to Sunny's mother. Before his daughter was born, Jimmy was murdered during a racially-motivated riot at the ill-fated Rivington All-Star Showcase concert in New York. Sunny's professional success can be partly attributed to Opal, who paid for her education all the way through her master's degree in journalism.

Opal never expected to become a singer, let alone a famous one, firmly believing that her half-sister, Pearl, would be the one to achieve stardom with her voice. In fact, when English singer-songwriter Nev Charles comes to Detroit as part of a record company-backed tour to look for a Black singer to partner with him, Opal thinks that Nev must be there to hear Pearl. Nev's interest in Opal leads to some friction between the sisters because, as Pearl explains, she asked him, "Are you kidding?" only because she "wanted to know if he was on the up-and-up, because people could be so cruel to Opal." In hindsight, Opal is grateful to Pearl for having said that to Nev, but back then she believed that Pearl was expressing disbelief that her sister's talent was being recognized over her own.

So begins Opal's whirlwind career as she looks to define herself as a singer, define her personal style (as Curtis explains in a footnote, Opal has "a form of alopecia areata," in which hair drops away from the scalp, and she is essentially bald, so this involves a lot of hats and scarves), along with what she believes in and what she wants to fight for, particularly in a social environment where an interracial singing duo in America can be a powder keg. And that powder keg explodes after the Rivington Showcase concert is hastily planned and all warning signs emanating from the dangerous country music group the Bond Brothers are ignored by a record label bigwig whose avarice overrides concerns about safety. This is the tragic centerpiece and core of the novel, and the different perspectives of the event expressed to Curtis are hard to bear. However, the incident produces a necessary subtle wake-up call to readers to look into our minds and hearts and really examine who we are and how our attitudes and behavior have changed, or not, since the 1970s. What do we believe? Is it true? Is it right? Is any of what happens at Rivington Showcase justified in any way? What can we do better from this point on?

Dawnie Walton creates such an absorbing environment through these interviews and Curtis's editor's notes that she disappears. Curtis is in charge here, digging deep into music history with such skill and passion that Opal & Nev might actually have existed. And what makes this a formidable novel is that these voices, from the title duo to all those who surrounded them, are so distinct, so strong, that the reader gets a vivid sense of each one as they go along. Watch especially for Rosemary Salducci, Rivington Records' no-bull receptionist, and Virgil LaFleur, Opal's dear friend and careerlong stylist.

This important piece of fictional music history reverberates loudly into our real-life world, and it's unforgettable not only for that, but for the profound and awe-inspiring journey of watching Opal navigate and live her life, as messy and invigorating as any rock star's, on her terms. Aretha Franklin. Diana Ross. Tina Turner. Opal Jewel.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

Music is at the heart of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, and Walton makes us love these musicians in the same way that we love our favorite bands. She uses this love to dig deeper, grappling with racism and other sinister themes to reveal the true essence of rock ’n’ roll. It’s not just about sex and drugs and parties; it’s a way to express the complexity and sadness of our everyday lives. Using music to cope is glorious and human, and Walton doesn’t just cope—she triumphs.

O Magazine, Most Anticipated Books of 2021
Walton's fabulous debut novel is an utterly fresh take on finding one's voice, on systemic racism and sexism, and on freedom of expression. That these heavy subjects don't weigh down this hugely entertaining novel are testament to Walton's deftness and skill.

New York Times
Like the best fiction, [The Final Revival of Opal & Nev] feels truer and more mesmerizing than some true stories. It’s a packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.

Washington Post
[A] dazzling triumph...Walton brilliantly uses the unfolding story of the present to unspool the hidden story of the past...It is refreshing to read a book that centers a Black woman who has this many layers, a book that seeks neither to save her from nor punish her for the flaws that make her human...I am grateful for this fictional account, which gives readers the chance to meet an unforgettable character and also provides a lens for considering the real-world artists whose stories have not yet been told in a way that centers them or gives them proper credit.

Kirkus Reviews
Debut author Walton wields the oral history form with easy skill, using its suggestion of conversation and potential for humor to give her characters personality...An intelligently executed love letter to Black female empowerment and the world of rock music.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Walton's spectacular debut pulls off a polyphonic oral history of a fictional proto-Afro-punk performer and her white musical partner...Walton pumps up the volume with a fresh angle on systemic racism and freedom of expression. This is a firecracker.

Library Journal (starred review)
[Opal] is a champion for people who have suffered discrimination, bullying, and marginalization, and she is fierce and sticks to her convictions, no matter the consequences to her career…Walton has penned a true wonder of a debut novel.

Author Blurb Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Times bestselling author of The Water Dancer and Between the World and Me
Dawnie Walton's The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev is one of the most immersive novels I've ever read. This is largely because of Walton's skill at letting so many people talk in so many different ways. Voices are marshalled from across America, and then across the Atlantic, and blended seamlessly into a tale about black culture, black women American capitalism. This is a thrilling work of polyphony—a first novel, that reads like the work of an old hand.

Author Blurb Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling author of A Long Way Down
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is as musical and revolutionary in tone and structure as it is in content. It delves into the complexities of the creative life, specifically as it pertains to Black women, and instead of shying away or egg-shelling, it does what every good book does: tells the truth. A truth that bangs. That shrieks. A siren song to shatter what we've known of the novel. Things won't ever be the same after this. And I'm so happy Dawnie Walton has arrived.

Author Blurb Ayana Mathis, New York Times bestselling author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
'Bold' doesn't even begin to describe it. Dawnie Walton's exhilarating debut is a thrill ride into the Afro-punk 1970s complete with a central character so unforgettable, you'll almost believe you've heard her name before. Innovative, sexy, edgy— I've never read anything like Opal & Nev, and I promise you haven't either.

Print Article

Black Americans in Paris

Josephine Baker dressed in military uniform in 1948In The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Opal Jewel finds solace in Paris when her music partner, Nev Charles, has become increasingly unreliable due to an opioid addiction.

It begins at Versailles with a charity fashion show designed to raise money for the palace's restoration, where celebrity attendees include Stephen Burrows, one of the first famous African American fashion designers, and singer-dancer Josephine Baker, who is 67 years old and resplendent in a sequined catsuit and a headdress with feathers. By fall of 1973 when this scene from the novel takes place, the real-life Baker had been living full-time in Paris for over 25 years. She fell hard for the city in 1925 when she first performed there. Just 19 years old at the time, she dazzled Parisians as part of an all-Black revue (La Revue Nègre). In 1937 she became a proud French citizen and even dabbled in espionage to support her adopted country during World War II.

Josephine Baker was one of many 20th-century Black American musicians, artists and writers who sought better conditions for themselves in Paris after experiencing racial animosity in the United States. Jazz great Duke Ellington and his orchestra made multiple trips there. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong lived in a Parisian hotel while performing around town from 1934-1935. Musician Sidney Bechet traveled with Baker as part of the all-Black revue, and later made jazz well-known and revered in the neighborhood of Montmartre, famous for its nightclub scene.

Leroy "Roughhouse" Haynes, a Morehouse College graduate and ex-football player, was stationed in Germany during World War II and gravitated to Paris after it ended. There, he found freedom of the heart, marrying a white Frenchwoman, Gabrielle Lecarbonnier. In 1949, he found freedom of the soul, opening with Lecarbonnier a restaurant called Gabby and Haynes, which specialized in soul food. They had a rough go of it at first, but the restaurant was buoyed by fellow Black GIs whose raves lured writers and jazz musicians there. He and Gabrielle split, and he spent time in Germany again before returning to Paris, this time to open a solo restaurant called Chez Haynes, which, despite his death in 1986, remained open until 2009.

In a Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly article from April 2015, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams wondered if what had attracted Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet, along with writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the 1950s-'70s, still existed in Paris. His father had fallen hard for the city and often urged Williams to go while he was growing up.

So he went, moving there from Brooklyn in 2011 with his wife, who is a second-generation Parisian. After arriving, he thought of Leroy Haynes and the other Black luminaries of Paris: "It fills me with pangs of nostalgia to imagine that not so long ago, if I'd squinted hard enough, I would have spotted Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, or even a young James Baldwin…" He discovered that "by the time Leroy Haynes died in 1986, the legendary postwar black culture…had largely dissipated." So what was left?

Exploring Paris on his own modern-day terms, Williams meets Black poet, singer, and actor Saul Williams, who he feels is "a modern-day Josephine Baker or Langston Hughes." He also meets Jake Lamar, a novelist and playwright who has been living in Paris since 1992. Lamar explains that the old generation has passed away, including Tannie Stovall, a physicist who hosted "first Friday" dinners for "brothers" that were a must for African Americans who had moved to Paris or were just passing through. Lamar's generation, in their 50s and 60s, continues that tradition as much as they can, and Williams attends one such dinner.

However, Williams is careful to qualify his experience in non-utopian terms: "This traditional extension of human dignity to black expatriates is not the function of some magical fairness and lack of racism inherent in the French people. Rather, it stems in large part from the interrelated facts of general French anti-Americanism, which often plays out as a contrarian reflex to thumb the nose at crude white-American norms, along with the tendency to encounter American blacks—as opposed to their African and Caribbean counterparts—first and foremost as Americans and not as blacks."

Historians working on the music history blog Musical Geography, writing about Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet, take a more overtly critical view, describing the popularity of Black performers in Paris during the Jazz Age as fetishistic. Black performers in Parisian jazz clubs, in their estimation, were "subject to the exoticized, primitivist expectations of their usually-white audiences." While they were escaping the more overt and hostile racism prevalent in the United States, in Paris these performers were subjected to the somewhat more benign racism of appropriation and tokenism.

Josephine Baker in French military attire, 1948

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Rory L. Aronsky

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