7 December 2007

Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter, 1976

Set in 1900 in the Storyville red light district of New Orleans, this is a loosely fictionalised but also lucidly detailed telling of the life of Buddy Bolden, the cornetist whose music and descent into madness were both factors in the birth of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Bolden himself remains an elusive and slippery character as if Ondaatje knows he can only give a refracted portrait, with so much detail of his life being lost to history, and more than just exploring the relationships between the characters Ondaatje is also further exploring the relationship between creativity and destruction. The prose of Coming Through Slaughter is as liberating as the music, free-spirited though often deliberately disjointed and disorientating, told in rushes of solo improvisations and phrases stripped down to rhythms of speech, with words often given the precise function of musical notes. Ondaatje has allowed the story itself to completely inform his method of storytelling, giving this novel a memorable and truly poetic heart.   PY

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