Tananarive Due

"Joplin's Ghost"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 30, 2005)

"Artie mentioned the waltz I composed for the Augustain Club, remember? It's a very exclusive club, and I was honored to be asked, so I labored on it a month, trying to perfect every note. But when it was time for the performance, they wouldn't let me play because I'm a Negro. They hired white musicians instead. I was good enough to compose it, but not good enough to set foot in the door."

Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for The Between, and recipient of the 2002 American Book Award for another horror novel, The Living Blood, Tananarive Due is an accomplished juggler of the real and the supernatural, able to weave a spell which makes readers willingly suspend their disbelief. Here Due adds historical elements to the supernatural, telling the tale of a young R&B singer, who finds herself irrevocably tied to rag-time composer/pianist Joplin and his ghost.

Seriously injured by Joplin's ancient piano, which mysteriously fell on her when she was ten, Phoenix Small, at twenty, is on the verge of a major career when she suddenly starts seeing and hearing Joplin's ghost—a man in her apartment, a voice calling to her, and Joplin's music appearing in her own computer music program. She gives piano concerts of Joplin's lost music while asleep, and believes that "Joplin was the only person who could teach her what she needed to know."

Due gracefully alternates Joplin's turn-of-the-century biography with Phoenix's present music world, a time of gangsta rap and rock, showing the efforts of black musicians in both periods to give voice to the black experience. Due is particularly sensitive in evoking the sad life of Joplin, beginning the novel with a wrenching account of his final days as a crippled and mentally disturbed syphilitic at Bellevue. Her ability to pack her descriptions with lively sense impressions brings the music world alive in both periods, and the characters, even the minor ones, live and breathe, adding to the intensity and the supernatural suspense. Love stories for both Joplin and Phoenix, unabashedly sexual, reveal their passion for life and the ability of love to color their music.

As Phoenix mysteriously channels more and more of Joplin's lost music, including his first opera, believed to have been burned, she finds it dominating her own music and her career, and as Joplin's love story takes tragic turns, Phoenix, too, finds her own love story and her family life becoming dramatically affected. Joplin's piano, the one item which connects the real world of Joplin with that of Phoenix, takes on a life of its own, and as the tension builds to a dramatic confrontation between Phoenix and her ghost, the piano plays a key role.

Filled with fascinating historical detail about the life and times of Scott Joplin, from the turn of the century until Joplin's death in 1917, this exciting, sure-to-be-popular novel finely captures the status of black music at two different periods. Despite its excessive description, which would have benefited from pruning, the novel is fun to read-- "soft horror," rather than a blood-and-gore extravaganza.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 35 reviews

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About the Author:

author photoTananarive Due was born in 1966 and grew up in Miami, Florida. She is the daughter of civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due who named her daughter after the former name of the capital of Madagascar. Tananarive earned a B.S. in journalism from Northwestern University and an M.A in English literature from the University of Leeds in England as a Rotary Foundation Scholar and studied Nigerian literature.

Due was working as a journalist and columnist for the Miami Herald when she wrote her first novel, The Between, in 1995, which was nominated for Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel; her second novel, My Soul to Keep, won best novel. Her novel, Living Blood, won an American Book Award.

Due is married to author Steven Barnes, whom she met in 1997 at a university panel on "The African-American Fantastic Imagination." They live in Longview, Washington.

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