The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton was a book that I had absolutely no idea about before reading it, but absolutely could not put down once I started it.
The book is written in an interview format; I have since discovered that the technical term for this is an “oral history”. The premise is that a journalist for a music magazine wants to interview Opal and Nev, a punk rock duo comprised of a Black woman from Detroit and a white man with red hair from Birmingham, as well as all the people around them who were integral to their success and story as up and coming musicians throughout the 60s and 70s.
What Dawnie Walton has done so effortlessly in this novel is create characters who are entirely their own, whose actions perfectly match the distinct and vivid personalities that Walton has created for them, and yet who are all fundamentally trying to achieve the same end goal. Most of the main and supporting characters are trying to make a name for themselves, are trying to create something from nothing. In the case of Opal, this is becoming a musician who has finally risen from the ashes of the shame she felt about being labelled unattractive due to having alopecia from a young age. For Nev this is becoming the famous and celebrated musician that his mother had always wanted him to be, especially as her own creative dreams were never fully realised. For Bob Hize, it is discovering unique musicians who he can nurture into the next big names of the future. For Howie Kelly, it is making as much money as possible by any means necessary. And for Virgil LaFleur, it is becoming the renowned and celebrated designer that he has always wanted to become.
This novel pulls you straight into following the rise of these individuals, and being shocked and sometimes appalled by the choices that they have made to bring their dreams to life. Though Opal and Nev are fictional musicians, the interviews themselves, as well as the footnotes in the novel, set these characters firmly in the music scene of the 60s and 70s. The entire novel is also firmly planted in this period by virtue of references to real-life historical and popular culture events that took place at the time. We find out about the Detroit riots and Birmingham Church bombing of the 60s. The novel very astutely and subtly references how African Americans were disproportionately conscripted into military service during the Vietnam War. The novel plants Opal right in the middle of the famous “Battle of Versailles” fashion show. And before it briefly touches on life in the 80s under Reagan, we learn about the many musicians at the time who were contemporaries of Opal & Nev, as well as the musicians that they were vying to emulate and even overtake as burgeoning musicians. Walton does this extremely well throughout the book, which has the effect of making the characters seem very real. While reading this book I felt as though I was right in the middle of every scene and was intently following the journeys that these characters took over time.
Above all what this story revealed to me was how far grit, courage and determination can get you in life, how sometimes luck and happenstance influence this, and how privilege can have a profound impact on your ability to achieve what you set out to achieve. This is a story about shooting your shot, and how the people around us can either help or hinder our ability to live out our dreams. I finished this book thinking about how real all the characters felt, because what was driving them forward is what drives us all forward in this thing we call life.
There are some books that have a profound impact on the way you see life, and there are also books that make you think that the author must have spent about 10 years creating what is truly a masterful piece of literature. The amount of research that must have gone into completing this book is so immense that I would plant this book firmly in the category of the latter. This book is so good in so many ways: from the narrative perspective, to how meticulously well-crafted and vivid the characters were, to how historical events and popular culture from the 60s up until 2016 are expertly woven into the lives of the characters to truly bring them to life. I have never read a book like this before, and it was truly wonderful to have the privilege of going on a journey with them through these years in their lives.
After reading this novel you will be left feeling that your opinions of some characters have changed, you may feel more, or less, compassionate towards a few. You may be left feeling angry or sad about the choices that some characters have made, or about what they have and have not had to contend with. I certainly finished this book feeling a range of different emotions. But ultimately, I felt at peace and that’s rarely a feeling that the endings of most books give me. Seeing this on Barack Obama’s best books of 2021 has confirmed what I already knew from the moment I became consumed by this book – that it is truly a masterpiece.
Rating – 5/5