Fiction, Reviews

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I regret that the world can be so unkind, so ungenerous. That people still haven’t learned how to love, in 1971 or 2016.

*There may be spoilers in the content warning section below, above the summary. Tread lightly!*

Published: March 2021
Genre: Fiction
Representation: People of Colour (Black folks); LGBTQIA2S+ (mlm); Own Voices (Black author)
Content Warning: racially charged violence and murder; death of a family member; cheating; social anxiety; being resented by a parent due to the other parent’s infidelity; violence; police raids; objectification of women; death of a parent; death resulting from a car accident; growing up without a father; hate crime; white supremacists (men who wear confederate flags, don’t take responsibility for their racism); sexual assault; homophobic slur (f word); use of term “schizo” to describe someone who is homophobic; defense of the confederate flag by a white supremacist; claims of reverse racism; substance use (including alcohol, opioms); use of the n word; sexual harrassment; Trump supporters; slut shaming; racism; police bias towards white people and against black people.

Summary

A poignant fictional oral history of the beloved rock ‘n’ roll duo who shot to fame in the 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.

— summary from The StoryGraph

Review

I keep hearing this book be likened to Daisy Jones & The Six in execution, but I didn’t read Daisy Jones…to be honest, it never interested me. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev did. And while I may still give Daisy Jones a chance after being totally hooked into the writing style of Opal & Nev, I feel that a lot of what I found to be powerful in this book may not be the focus of the other. I digress. Daisy Jones is not the subject of this review.

Disclosure: My father, a drummer named Jimmy Curtis, fell in love with Opal Jewel in the summer of 1970.

Opal & Nev was an enthralling story from the start. Considering my propensity to skip the summary and dive right into the book (especially when it comes highly recommended, which this one did), I admittedly had to take a second to confirm that the book was indeed fiction. I am absolutely in awe of debut author Dawnie Walton – this book was incredible. The interview-style writing intermingled with the author’s commentary throughout made it all feel so real, in a way that became downright harrowing when the cast of characters reluctantly but surely began giving the more grisly details of the events in question. It was hard not to feel absolutely sickened at some points, and at the next be empowered by Opal’s story of self-discovery and resilience. This book is a force to be reckoned with, which incidentally is the perfect description for every single character. 

I read this book in audiobook format, and I wholeheartedly recommend you do the same. If you’re a fan of podcasts, it will feel almost natural (I say “almost” because the naming of every character before they speak is not a feature of podcasts), and if you’re not a podcast fan, that’s okay. Think of it this way – it is set up in documentary form, so listening to it as an audiobook, with each individual character phenomenally casted, brought the story to life. I felt a connection to it all in a way I’m not sure I would’ve experienced had I read it in physical or ebook formats. Obviously, I can’t say for sure, but after reading some of the negative reviews out there, I can’t help but feel that if those reviewers listened to the audiobook format, they would have felt different. (Part of my suspicion in this comes from the fact that there is a lot of dialect writing in this novel, which some folks may have had a harder time grasping while reading as opposed to listening to the audiobook).

The way the story is approached makes it captivating from page (or minute) one: we have a reporter (S. Sunny Shelton) writing a book inspired by a reunion concert between enigmatic musicians Opal and Nev. What’s their deal? Who knows…their history is veiled in smoke and mirrors for a large part of the book, even as the story unfolds through an interview process. We learn little by little about these folks and their lives, but what really keeps you in when you are not sure what’s going on is the fact that the reporter undertaking this project has a personal tie to it all: her father had an affair with Opal, and a series of mysterious events ultimately led to his murder. The book keeps you feeling on edge about the whole ordeal, especially because the sequence of events that led to Jimmy Carter’s eventual death is shrouded in secrecy. All the characters know what happened (including Sunny) because the night in question exploded in the media, surrounding Opal and Nev with a level of infamy they had once only dreamed of achieving. But the details of what happened are not immediately revealed to the reader, by virtue of the documentary-style of writing. None of the characters involved want to relive that fateful night, and so Sunny is left trying to figure out how to slyly extricate the pieces of the puzzle to form a full narrative for the reader. 

I say all that, but stop myself from saying so much more. That brief overview of the book has nothing on its true content. The story is as chilling as it is vibrant, with each boisterous character filling out the pages with their personal history and their take on everything that has happened so far. We have a shocking twist partway through the book, and considering Sunny’s connection to it all, she ends up having to make a difficult choice about where the project will go. She also ends up finding that the publication of this book has higher stakes than she initially thought it would. And all through her documentative efforts, we hear about Opal and Nev (through their eyes as well as the perspectives of their loved ones) traverse the music industry in their attempts to make it big. Through our characters’ recollections, the reader is plunged headfirst into the messy cluster of the music industry in 1970s (and beyond) racist America, and all the veritable bullshit that comes with it. Just as you may expect with a loud, unapologetically Black woman clawing her way towards trying to become a star, there is a ton of garbage that Opal faces; from racism, to slut shaming, from being reduced to a sex symbol, to finding self empowerment in her sexuality. There is a whole lot of aggressive racism to be seen in this novel (likely accurate for the place and time), and it brings the reader to the brink of nausea (especially as a person of colour) to read the events as they unfold and try to control your feelings of intense anger, sadness, and frustration. This is especially true when you find out what really happened to Jimmy Carter – but that’s all I can say about that. At the end of the day, Opal is just trying to survive, while trying to honour her gut feeling that says she is not destined for an ordinary life. This book really delves into those difficult topics (I mean, did you see the content warnings?) and forces you to sit with the feeling of being punched right in the gut. 

I got a better question for you. Why are you so deeply invested in proving I’m scared? Does a Black person showing they’re scared make you feel safer? I suggest you sit back and interrogate that.

Each character felt incredibly authentic in their own rights, and reading this novel felt inexplicably like you were meeting new people and being looped into their lives. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a book fully flush out each character’s proudest moments while also pointing a finger at their every flaw…these are the most well-rounded, every-day-human characters I have encountered. I felt the impulse to Google some characters, especially Jimmy Carter, Opal, and Nev – I wanted to go down the rabbit hole of all of their Wikipedias, but alas, they were not real. And if the convincing characters weren’t enough, Walton absolutely nails it on everything else. It truly felt like I was in the recording studio, or at Opal’s home, at the funeral, or at that terrible night where things went wrong. I could truly imagine it all, and it was such a transformative experience. And while the book did have it’s slower moments where I desperately wanted the story to move forward a little quicker, by the end of it all, I couldn’t help but feel impacted by it all.

Safe to say that this book stayed with me long after I completed it, and while writing this review I’m just itching to jump back into it all over again. 

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