Mandy J, Reviewer
What an interesting discovery this turned out to be! I’d never heard of William Melvin Kelley and I’m pleased that this reissue of his 1965 novel will hopefully introduce him to a wider readership. I don’t think that the book merits the rather extravagant claims that are being made for it – it’s no “masterpiece” in my opinion – but it’s a really interesting and moving story and one that I very much enjoyed. It tells the story of a blind jazz musician’s rise to national prominence after an inauspicious start in life when he is placed in an institution for blind black children when he is just 5 years old. The impression we get is that it’s not a good place to be but unexpectedly the author doesn’t dwell on this but instead on the musical education that our hero Ludlow Washington is given, allowing him to leave the home early to embark on a musical career, something he does very successfully. He has an exceptional talent and it takes him far. But gifted though he is he’s damaged inside and sadly never manages to fill the emotional void deep inside. Consequently his relationships never quite manage to work out and he seems very much a lost soul. There’s so much to enjoy in this compelling novel. As well as Ludlow’s own story, we get a glimpse into the world of jazz music and black musicians, we come across racial prejudice, even from those white people who like to “slum it” by visiting the clubs where the musicians perform. We learn about what it’s like to navigate a seeing world if you’re blind – and, refreshingly, Ludlow never bemoans his fate. There are no stereotypes here, or lazy characterisation. Kelley is an original and inventive writer, and was very much a part of the 1960s Black Art Movement. He only died in 2017 and it’s shame he didn’t live to see this resurgence of interest in his writing. Another of his achievements is that in 2014 he was officially credited by the OED with coining the term “woke” in a New York Times article ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’”. Highly recommended.