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Joplin's Ghost: A Novel Paperback – September 19, 2006
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"[M]ore than just a ghost story is Due's sense of musical and cultural history.... Even while she brings to life Scott Joplin the man, Due makes us appreciate Scott Joplin the icon, the symbol. This understanding gives Joplin's Ghost its haunting power." -- The Washington Post
"In this ambitious and action-packed novel, Tananarive Due blurs genre boundaries as adroitly as her ghost walks through walls. Part love story, part ghost story, part historical fiction, part contemporary adult drama, this book is difficult to categorize -- and impossible to put down." -- Valerie Boyd, author of Wrapped in Rainbows:The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
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Second, I first experienced this through the audiobook. The downside to an audiobook is that you're trapped in the narration and can't flip ahead to when it get's better.
I hate Scott Joplin and his story, which, given that that's half the novel, is really a drawback. I think Due puts a lot of research and time into characterizing him and his world, but I just don't like him and don't care.
Phoenix, on the other hand, is a pretty awesome character, and I'm totally into her story, her world. This feels a lot like Due's Blood Colony (African immortals) series with the contrast between father Dawid and inspirational daughter Fana.
Except I literally put post-it tabs in the book so I could finish Phoenix's story without wasting any more time on Joplin.
The way these two characters meet, come together, and relate to each other is unique. This is a ghost story and a love story but most of all I think this is also a story about music. I have always believed that music is the great leveler among people and this book appealed to me because many of the characters reveled in the same eclectic yet classical tastes I have. This book covers a lot of ground musically from whom it talks about and reflects on even briefly, to how it rationalizes and/or educates us about the political, cultural, and societal ramifications of what we hear when we listen to music and what we don't know about the people who make the music.
The protagonists of this book were stunning but all the secondary characters really blew me away too, particularly Marcus Smalls a.k.a. Sarge. If you're familiar with the term book boyfriend I'd like to coin one about Sarge and say he's an awesome book Dad. Smart, fierce, and loving as a character, Sarge is a force of nature. Great story, great book.
What connects the two stories is a piano, one that happens to be haunted--but, let's be clear, Due's ghost story is never scary or even all that creepy. It seems that Joplin's ghost has selected Phoenix and her music-writing talents for purposes that will (of course) be fully explained. But where these two stories intersect, things never quite gel. Part of the problem is that there is no ambiguity in this ghost story: unlike the best tales of the supernatural, virtually nothing is left to the reader's imagination. Due spells out virtually every biographical, psychological, or artistic connection that might exist between these two struggling, frustrated musicians who happen to live a century apart. Once you finish the book, there's not much to think about--although you'll probably be scampering, as I was, for information on Joplin and searching online for samples his music. The accuracy of Due's portrait is nothing short of astonishing, but the character of Joplin, no matter how convincingly rendered, doesn't step far outside his biography and really enter Due's novel. The historical fiction of the book succeeds, then, more in an educational way than in a literary one.
The other tale, of Phoenix's climb in the music business is what provides the thrills and terror in this ghost story. Phoenix has far more to fear from the real world than from any old ghost. The scenes set in the present depict more fully realized characters: a father who channels the energy of his own ambitions into his daughter's musical career, a music journalist (and echo from Phoenix's past) who becomes her lover, a best friend who is closer to her than a sister. Phoenix has sold her soul and compromised her talents to succeed, and the resulting payoff is ruthless. The trajectory and tragedies of Phoenix's fast-moving career are powerful enough for a novel of their own, but whenever Joplin's ghost starts acting up the connections between the two stories begin to feel forced. (In one of the novel's few ill-advised subplots, a small army of psychic researchers invades Phoenix's room; here we have pretty much entered Shirley MacLaine territory.) In effect, what we have is a fascinating biographical novel joined to gripping modern urban fiction--each of these stories is believable and compelling, but something is lost in the century between them.