A reunion tour promises to bring the two performers together for the first time in decades, but the personal, racial and political tensions that haunted the label and the country when they debuted haven’t gone anywhere. Walton brilliantly uses the unfolding story of the present to unspool the hidden story of the past.
Though Nev is in the title, the novel is most concerned with two women: Opal herself and SarahLena “Sunny” Curtis, the entertainment journalist who has been granted access to tell Opal’s story. Sunny’s interest in Opal isn’t purely journalistic — Sunny’s father, Jimmy, was murdered in the incident that jump-started Opal’s and Nev’s careers, and Sunny knows that Opal was having an affair with him. Opal has been a presence in Sunny’s life from the beginning: a beacon, a ghost, a void where her father might have been. “My most complicated idol,” Sunny calls her.
How wonderful it is to watch Walton build that complexity, starting with Opal’s fraught music industry debut. Opal arrives in New York facing the skepticism of the label executive who had hoped Nev would choose her buxom and more conventionally attractive sister, Pearl, as his vocal partner. Opal is skinny and dark-skinned and, because of alopecia, spent her childhood being taunted by kids who called her baldie. She’s never been taught to read music and doesn’t know much about the world she’s entering, but she knows she wanted out of her old life, and that’s all the motivation she needs. With the help of her stylist Virgil, who sees her unusual looks as a canvas for otherworldly drama, and Jimmy, her drummer and lover, who teaches her how to hear and adapt their music, she becomes a bolder, more authoritative presence. Opal is justifiably touchy when asked repeatedly about that confidence: “I understand that what people are really trying to ask me is this: ‘How in the world did a woman so black and so ugly manage to believe she could be somebody?’ ”
Opal’s confidence is hard-won and triumphant, but it’s also connected to the messier things that make her a fascinating fictional character rather than a martyr. Opal can be selfish, defensive and oblivious to what gets lost in pursuit of her own ambition or desire. The fake-documentary format gives Virgil’s and Pearl’s voices room to shine and sometimes gently push back against Opal’s story of how she invented herself. The relative absence of Jimmy’s voice — he died before anyone cared enough about Opal & Nev to document his thoughts on either of them — accumulates weight as the story continues without him. It is refreshing to read a book that centers a Black woman who has this many layers, a book that seeks neither to save her from nor punish her for the flaws that make her human.
At times, I held my breath, wondering if the novel could sustain its tightrope act — balancing its array of voices, its fictional history with actual history, its affection for Opal with the clarity of its portrait of her, its interest in Sunny herself with the story Sunny purportedly set out to tell. The first half of the book builds to a fuller account of the climactic event in the story’s past, and I wondered whether there would be enough narrative momentum left for the second half. I worried that Sunny’s own arc, primarily focused on the challenges of being the first Black editor of Aural, a legacy music publication, might start to feel sidelined or extraneous, given that it appeared only in editorial notes between the chapters.
I should have had faith: Walton structured this book masterfully. Halfway through, a major revelation about the past shifts the narrative question to the present, brilliantly spotlighting how salient history remains in a country that has never fully reckoned with racism or held its perpetrators accountable. Once we learn what happened, the book can turn its full attention to what happens next. Sunny’s professional circumstances shift, creating personal tension between Sunny and Opal, and a fascinating thematic echo in the story of two successful Black women whose power involves a balancing act between White approval and their own integrity. Even in 2016, the freedom available to Black women seeking to do things on their own terms has its price.
My only real disappointment with “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” is that when I finished reading, I had to remind myself that Opal Jewel was fictional, and I couldn’t search the archives for her interviews, read more biographies, listen to her entire musical catalogue, and tell everyone I know to do the same. Still, I am grateful for this fictional account, which gives readers the chance to meet an unforgettable character and also provides a lens for considering the real-world artists whose stories have not yet been told in a way that centers them or gives them proper credit.
Danielle Evans is the author of the story collections “The Office of Historical Corrections” and “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.”
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
By Dawnie Walton
37 Ink. 368 pp. $27