First things first: I found The Final Revival of Opal & Nev intensely frustrating. There’s so much potential here, but the novel feels like an early draft of itself. As this is Dawnie Walton’s debut, I hope more of that potential is fulfilled in her next book. I’ve also found it difficult to talk about this novel without intermittently mentioning spoilers. If you want to avoid these, click through to my Goodreads review, which has spoiler tags.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is told as a series of excerpts from oral history interviews collected by journalist Sunny, who also provides a framing narrative for the novel. (This structural choice feels like a bit of a mash-up between two Taylor Jenkins Reid novels – Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo). Opal & Nev were an iconic rock duo in the 1970s, but later split to pursue solo careers, and are now planning a final reunion. Their early days, however, were overshadowed by a concert that turned violent when their black drummer Jimmy was murdered by white racists. Here, Sunny has a personal stake; Jimmy was her father, and was having an affair with Opal when he died.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev turns on a central revelation at the midpoint of the novel, when we find out that what we thought happened at that fatal concert was not the full story. In short, we discover that Nev may have made Jimmy a target of racist violence by falsely telling the thuggish band that he stole their Confederate flag. I was disappointed by this twist; basically, because I feel that twists in novels should make stories more complex, not less so. The initial draw of Opal and Nev for the reader is the question of how two such different people formed a creative collaboration. We fully expect it to fall apart and we suspect it will be because Nev will be unable to recognise his white privilege and the difficulties Opal faces as a radical black female artist. The twist, therefore, is hardly a surprise, it’s a confirmation of what we already knew.
In structural terms, this twist and its placement in the novel robs the rest of the book of any momentum. We know we’re going to watch Opal & Nev’s ultimate decline. From my point of view as a reader – and I acknowledge this might not have worked with Walton’s vision for the novel – it would have been much more interesting if Nev had played no role in Jimmy’s death, but if he and Opal had come to blows over her onstage protest after the concert. Maybe he could even have wrongly blamed her for inciting violence? This would show his obliviousness as a white man, but have opened up more subtle fault-lines between them that were genuinely about race rather than sexual jealousy.
A number of reviewers note that, with the exception of Opal, Walton tends to rely on stereotype, and I would agree; aside from the flattening of Nev’s character, we have the white ‘trailer trash’ racists, the flamboyant gay costume designer, the Bernie Sanders fan who thinks everything is about false consciousness, the greedy record label head honcho… Again, this is only more frustrating because there are flashes of greater insight in her writing. I loved that Opal’s deeply religious sister, Pearl, was not a villain but a source of support, for example, and had a great singing voice of her own. Having said that, I thought that Opal herself was also unevenly developed as a character. Her affair with Jimmy is so pivotal to the novel, but we barely see the two together. There’s also a suggestion that her key conflict is between her desire for recognition and her own values, but I never really felt this – Opal always seemed to come down on the right side of history. Finally, we don’t get enough of Opal and Nev when things were good between them, which means his betrayal doesn’t land with enough emotional weight. Sunny, also, never comes alive in her own right.
There’s a lot that’s good about this book – the imaginative descriptions of Opal & Nev’s hit songs and their stage performances, and the ways in which they intersected with seventies protest culture, are brilliant – but it didn’t quite land for me.
I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read Great Circle, The Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy.