View Full Version : Patrick Neate: Twelve Bar Blues

18th Feb 2005, 19:07
This was quite an unusual read set over several generations from Africa to New Orleans from Harlem to London. Not so uncommon nowadays is the idea of generations intertwining over a couple of centuries with a thread running between them that they don't know about but then find out after a journey of discovery. However it's not simply formulaic and in places it's quite novel and unusual, it won the Whitbread Novel Award 2001 for the wild ride it takes the reader on. Gritty and straight to the point its not for the faint hearted in places with sexual and racial themes running right through it. A really quite blistering portrayal of New Orleans and its backwaters at the turn of the century makes up the core of the narrative as it charts the history of a Jazz trumpeter and his struggle as a poor black in early USA. No knowledge or interest is needed about early Jazz and its roots to really enjoy the narrative and really get to like the core characters. There is a streak of dark humour running through this especially when the story turns to modern day Africa in the bush when it get really quite funny indeed.

The narrative really is at its best in the parts of the novel based in New Orleans - it's really gripping and down to earth and doesn't flinch from the grittiness and unpleasantness of live poor black areas in the 1920's. The character of the weird Witchdoctor who seems always high on Marijuana lifts the plot to silly heights and another character drinks "Nigerian Guinness" blackcurrant juice in a pint of Guinness a new one on me that I may try one day!. I found the novel an easy read and quite entertaining with some parts certainly better than others and the whole story as a whole a little thin but the strength of the dialogue and the descriptive passages certainly made up for any perceivable deficiencies. Gritty realistic adult dialogue and a real flair for description make Patrick Neates novel well worth a look indeed!.

23rd Nov 2006, 17:31
I've just finished this book, for book club, and I really enjoyed it. As Mike outlines above, it's a story that spans many generations and several continents. At its heart are several different themes - jazz music, race and in particular what it meant to be black in the early twentieth century, love and loyalty.
There are a few intertwining stories which eventually link. One of the main ones follows the fortunes of a young black boy called Fortis 'Lick' Holden as he grows up in a large, poor household in Mount Marter, Louisiana, at the turn of the twentieth century. This part of the tale is recounted in the snappy, drawling black vernacular of the time, and is full of warmth, good humour, family sagas and almost audible tones of sweet jazz and blues. Lick becomes a talented horn player and travls to New Orleans in search of his 'sister' Sylvie, who was actually the daughter of his mother's half sister but was brought up in the same house.
Interspersing this long, hypnotic tale are other accounts. One is of an African chief, Tongo, at the end of the twentieth century, and his naughty witchdoctor Musa, who ploughs through spells and women at a rate that worries even himself. Musa is a descendant - or reincarnation - of another witchdoctor a couple of hundred years before, who cast a spell that changed history and the destiny of several people and their descendants. Meanwhile, the educated and goodnatured Tongo frets about whether he loves his wife or not. The African part of the novel is as entertaining and easy to read as Alexander Mccall Smith's stories about the Ladies' Dtective Agency, which are also set in Africa. There is much to smile at and there are also fascinating insights into African culture.
The final strand of the story follows an English prostitute named Sylvia as she searches for her roots and her true identity. She meets up with a warm-hearted young alcoholic by the name of Jim, and the pair make an unlikely couple as they search for her past.
The whole novel is eminently enjoyable. Traumatic and touching episodes sit side by side with hilarious incidents and likeable characters. It's sobering to consider how many poor black women were forced into prostitution as late as the mid twentieth century because of the lack of an alternative means of earning money. With its vast colourful cast of characters and its lashings of passion, history, music and family, this is a book that will keep you hooked until the end.