Kat Pomfret - Paradise Jazz.
"My growing up was poetic; the kind that everybody likes to read about but nobody wants to have…Mom knitting a past, me trying to find the end of wool to unravel the whole concern…there was history, there was subtext, it spoke volumes."
And so the novel’s agenda is set – to unravel the complexities of family history, to separate truth from lies, to search for what is missing and to find what has been lost. In Paradise Jazz, characters become the lost and the found, both the searchers and the searched.
Set in an anonymous suburban town, Paradise Jazz is narrated by best friends Georgetown Easy and Helena Jones. I won’t list all the things which link the girls - how they are similar, how they are different or how their lives intertwine - because the most important thing about Georgetown and Helena is that they are both looking for something. Both of their lives are imbued with a sense of the unknown, and it is this invisible force they both chase. However, it isn’t just Georgetown and Helena who are searching. Paradise Jazz is all about lost things – people, memories, pasts and futures. It is about the expectation of what finding these lost things will bring, and the true impact the reality of discovery has.
Georgetown says: "my world is a shrunken world", and she isn’t the only one for whom this is true. Paradise Jazz is full of shrunken worlds, whether it is the small town in which the novel is set, the tight knit community in which Georgetown exists, or Paradise Jazz itself, the blues club which the book is named after. This idea of a shrunken world is pivotal in the novel, because it both defines the lives of those who exist within it, and provides the bounds from which they want to escape.
Georgetown and Helena exist within tiny family units, with more people missing than are present. (Georgetown has her mum Agatha, Aunt Tantie (Agatha’s sister Mary) and Tantie’s husband Jimmy, whilst Helena’s family is Troy, her twin brother, and mad Aunt Gelda, also known as Gag). Both also want to make their lives bigger, and the only way they see to do this is to find what they perceive as "missing". Yet ironically, in Paradise Jazz, no one actually lives a shrunken life. In spite of the sense of absence surrounding Helena and Georgetown, they are both strong young women who have extraordinary lives in many ways – Georgetown raised by a single parent in the US and England, but also with a strong sense of African culture instilled in her by her mother and aunt, and Helena, caring for dying parents as a teenager and then continuing to look after her brother and aunt. I like that Pomfret has managed to create characters that have true dimension – we can see them from the outside, but empathise with how they see themselves too. This novel bursts with secrets, with people either running forwards, away from the past, or trying to run backwards towards it, hoping to find something they are desperately seeking and cannot find in their present.
Whilst the themes of Paradise Jazz are not highly original, they do reflect some of the fundamental intricacies and complexities of human existence – the ideas of the self, identity, and belonging. Georgetown’s absent father is one of the foci of her search, the other being her need for a sense of understanding of her family’s history (her mother and aunt, and her grandparents). Her physical searching, though, is about bigger things. Georgetown cannot use her own reality to forge an identity and sense of belonging– her mother’s love, the family unit she exists in, or her relationship with Helena. Rather, part of her believes that until she finds her father, then that which is missing will always have dominance and prevent her from feeling a true sense of her own self. Within Georgetown, her mother’s half must be reconciled with her father’s half in order to make her complete. Throughout the course of the novel, family secrets are revealed, and a truth emerges.
Similarly, Helena is searching not for an absent parent to complete her sense of self , even though both parents are now missing from her life, rather, she is trying to find the girl that she would have been without the experiences of caring for her parents as they were dying, and ultimately, without their deaths. In her own words:
"I’d have been a different girl, one who didn’t live on tiptoe".
She is searching for some sense to life after the loss of her parents, and much like Georgetown, believes this lies outside the bounds of her own reality – with Jack Morea, a philosopher and author of The Theory of Soul written in the 1970s. Helena believes this book to contain the truth about life, but when she meets Jack, she finds out that he doesn’t really remember, or believe anymore, his own ideologies in the book, let alone hold them to be truths. He says:
"Truth? Lies? The world’s not that simple. The truth is what happens when everybody’s delusions coincide. My truth, your truth, these are only ever working hypotheses."
Pomfret raises the interesting question about just what the truth means, and whether the consequences of the truth are those that are expected. There is a sense early on in Paradise Jazz that "the truth", in whatever way it manifests itself, will somehow enable Georgetown and Helena to reconcile themselves with who they really are, and discover that which they are searching for. But does it really do this in the novel, and does it ever really happen like this at all. For Georgetown, the truth could be said to make little difference because in the end, her everyday life is no different – she is still fatherless and still surrounded and loved by the people who have always been there for her. The realisation of the horrors associated with her grandfather can similarly change little for her in reality. Yes, she can now attribute her mother’s and aunt’s behaviour with each other to something more tangible, but her mother and aunt will still behave in the same way and have the same relationship. Helena suffers equal disappointment at the hands of Jack Morea. She thinks his truth is the truth she has been looking for, but that is all it turns out to be – his truth and version of events. Perhaps it is simply in the knowing of a truth which makes a slight shift occur, even if that truth cannot change much in reality. Maybe knowing leads to more of an understanding, and this understanding to some sense of peace of mind and acceptance. For Georgetown and Helena, the truths they are eventually faced with change everything and change nothing. Ultimately, they must decide whose version of the truth they use as the basis on which to cement their sense of self and identity. I think in the end, both realise that they must create their own version of the truth to survive.
Pomfret is undoubtedly a talented writer. She has a great ability to create strong narrative voices, and I admire this very much. Georgetown’s is especially distinctive. Not surprisingly, given the focus Pomfret places on music throughout the book, Georgetown’s voice is full lyricism, and has a tone and rhythm of its own. I very much like the way in which Pomfret ends the book with Georgetown singing – it is as if her spoken voice has metamorphosed into its rightful entity – a song. Pomfret’s two main characters also narrate their own stories, and this lends an authenticity to what they are saying and makes me feel closer and more involved with each of them. I like that there is no third person narrator between me and the character, and that there is less distance to reach their realities. Aurelie Morea (daughter of Jack Morea) is a ghostly figure from the past who arrives at Paradise Jazz to stir up old feelings for Georgetown and her family. She provides a third narrative voice in the book, and it is in these sections that we see the extent of Pomfret’s poeticism. Aurelie mesmerises audiences at the Paradise Jazz club with her voice, and seduces its owner, Sanderson Miller, with her singing, as well as members of the club band who play with her. Pomfret allows Aurelie a voice which is a mixture between poetry and prose, full of imagery and hidden meaning. There is a real beauty to these parts of the novel, and it is almost as if Aurelie is singing us the story of her life, rather than telling us. Pomfret successfully presents three really distinct voices for the main characters in the book, and in this her debut novel, manages to show good restraint with both plot and writing style. The novel has a solid and tight narrative structure, with a good sense of timing and flow.
I like lots of things about Paradise Jazz – the way it offers a snapshot of a particular time in a group of people’s lives, how it contains enough history to ground the characters and plot, but still retains a sense of the fleeting, and how it explores fundamental themes of existence which everyone can relate to in some way (self, identity, belonging, truth, and how individuals have the power to create these for themselves). Most importantly, Pomfret’s writing is delightful to read – she has definitely mastered the craft of how to use words well. In the novel, Jack Morea says:
"There’s something in the coming and going".
The lives of Georgetown and Helena don’t change dramatically in the course of Paradise Jazz, but something shifts for both of them so that they can begin to move away from situations they no longer wish to be in and which have made them feel incomplete. They have both "come and gone" throughout the novel, and both end up somehow better for their journeys.
Louise Wise © 2005.