A fiercely independent young Black woman, Opal Robinson pushes against the grain in her style, art and attitude. Despite her unconventional looks, Opal knows she can be a star. But just as she is creating a niche for herself as Opal Jewel, one part of aspiring punk duo, Opal & Nev, a controversial rival band signed to her label brandish a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the horrifying violence that ensues trigger a chain of events that will sear the image of the duo into public consciousness forever – but at a terrible cost to Opal and those she loves.
Decades later Opal is due to reunite with her former collaborator Nev Charles as headliner at a rock festival. S. Sunny Shelton, a music journalist with a personal connection to the band seizes the opportunity to curate an oral history of the rock idols. Sunny thought she knew the stories, leading up to the cult duo’s most politicised chapter, but as her interviews dig deeper, a shocking new allegation from an unexpected source once again threatens everything Opal holds dear.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this fantastic debut from Dawnie Walton, more than I thought I would in fact. It was like a VH1 Behind the Music documentary except in written form, with transcripts of conversations and interviews with the various players that made up the Opal & Nev history. I loved how the social and political history of America in the 60s and 70s was woven into the storyline with such ease and without being didactic, giving a perfect backdrop and context to the fateful concert that eventually ends the working relationship between Opal and Nev.
What stands out is the characterisation of Opal as this bold, flamboyant, audacious strong woman. Depending on who is talking, she either a wildly talented artist with a heart of gold or a loud-mouthed troublemaker who deserves every ounce of the vitriol she receives. The latter depictions of Opal struck a chord as they are as familiar as they are problematic descriptions of Black women everywhere who refuse to hide their light under a bushel and be silent. There were so many times when I wanted to throw the book across the room – mostly when Howie Kelly, Opal & Nev’s slimy manager was speaking as his references to Opal were so awful and disgusting, but sadly recognisable.
Nev on the other hand starts off as this amiable, sympathetic character – a shy guy full of imaginative and whimsical song lyrics. But quite early on I felt like something was off about him, which didn’t become clear until halfway through the book when he’d written a song so peak white liberal that again I wanted to throw the book across the room. He totally gave off ‘only one Black friend’ vibes, and truth be told I wasn’t buying his supposed creative genius.
As well as highlighting the issues of trying to break out in the music industry, the novel also neatly depicts how Black singers and musicians have been the backbone of the success of many a white singer/musician. The irony is not lost when you realise quite early on that Nev’s career has since flourished, although now is floundering, while Opal’s has been punctuated with plenty of stop and starts. Yet as the novel goes on, culminating in their final performance, it becomes obvious who really needs who.
All though reading The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, I kept trying to think of a real-life counterpart to Opal and finally settled on a mix of Grace Jones and Skin from Skunk Anansie. Both women to me represent the kind of women that nobody could really box or label, though they undoubtedly tried. Each woman was and still is fully their own person. I remember as child being simultaneously mesmerised and intimidated watching Grace Jones prowl and growl on Top of the Pops with her avant garde fashion style. And later in my university years watching Skin, a bald-headed Black woman front a rock band which to me had always been the preserve of white men, was nothing short amazing, especially at a time when none of her counterparts looked or sounded like her. Talk about breaking barriers and destroying perceptions! Reading this novel again gave me that same feeling I had watching Grace Jones and Skin in their respective arenas, there is truly nothing we cannot do when we set our minds to it.
This is a ultimately joyous book, despite its many painful and tragic moments. It celebrates music, love, Blackness, womanhood and self-determination, and more besides. If you are a music lover or have ever felt yourself to be a bit of an outsider looking in, then I’m pretty sure that you will enjoy this novel.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is published by Quercus Books in hardback, e-book & audio on 20 April 2021.