I’d love to show off my jazz erudition and tell you that I knew the title of Laura Warrell’s debut was a Jelly Roll Morton quote but that’s not the case. Truth be told, I know little or nothing about the genre but I did like the idea of a novel that told the story of the women whose lives its main protagonist marched through with little regard. Warrell’s Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm follows trumpet player Circus Palmer, teetering on the brink of a midlife crisis.
You feed people the same lines, you end up with the same conversations.
Just turned forty, Circus is still behaving as if he’s a charismatic youth with a promising future ahead of him when he’s long since been overtaken by the talent he teaches at Boston Conservatory. He and Maggie are spending a few days together in Miami when she tells him she’s pregnant. Circus’ response is to, quite literally, run away, leaving Maggie to decide whether she’ll keep this baby which might be her last chance at motherhood but will not fit well into her successful drumming career. Circus has a string of women whose lives he passes in and out of but aside from Pia, the mother of his daughter Koko, Maggie is the one constant. Over the next few years, Circus will be faced squarely with the responsibility of parenthood and the waning of his musical star, not to mention his allure.
He was vain without deserving it, frightened by living though he tried to be hard.
I wasn’t sure about Warrell’s novel when I began it. It seemed a tad overwritten for my taste but around thirty pages in it clicked for me. Something about its structure. I rather liked the idea that while Circus thinks himself the centre of the universe it’s the women who tell us their stories. He’s a man who thinks nothing of stringing along a woman who’s been in love with him for several years until one day she snaps and hits back in a way that couldn’t be more damaging. The mother of his child seems incapable of giving up on him and then she does while Koko, his daughter, idolises this man who is barely in her life until she’s old enough to recognise what he is. These are all strong women, not least Koko who sees herself through the awkwardness of adolescence. Warrell is careful not to paint Circus as a monster: he’s simply a man whose sweet-talking and easy stage presence has worked like a sexual charm but is now wearing thin. The novel ends with hope and redemption as Koko spends her last days with Circus before heading across the country to college in California. Not perhaps my usual literary territory but I’m glad I stuck with what turned out to be an absorbing, thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction.
Doubleday UK: London 9780857529442 368 pages Hardback