100 Essential Books – Joy – Marsha Hunt (1990)

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I seem to have gone off slightly on a celebrity writer tangent recently. Amongst my last few posts have been books by Joan Collins, Fern Britton and John Major but here is probably the most successful, in my opinion, of  all celebrity-written novels. Marsha Hunt became well known in the 60’s and early 70’s as model, actress, singer and girlfriend of Mick Jagger.

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She lived in London during this time and became a regular name in tabloid newspapers for amongst other things, giving birth to Jagger’s daughter; being photographed naked by Patrick Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin, for the cover of “Vogue”; being in the cast of the London production of “Hair” as well as its official image in a silhouette of a famous photo by Justin Villeneuve (Twiggy’s manager)- see below; being the first black woman on the cover of British fashion magazine “Queen”; being the reputed inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and performing at the 1969 Isle Of Wight Festival.

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It seemed as if Marsha was the epitome of American glamour in Sixties London, gaining an almost iconic status.   She was a household name and probably the highest profile African-American woman in Britain. She spent the 70’s doing such diverse things as appearing in films such as the Hammer Horror “Dracula AD-1972”, making a disco album with Giorgio Moroder and became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.

By 1990 Marsha was living in a remote part of France and after getting the writing bug with autobiographical works put out her first novel “Joy” and what a superb debut it was. Front cover blurb compared her with Toni Morrison and this is an apt comparison as her writing was, like Morrison’s, of sheer quality and as a novelist she outshone her achievements in other areas of the arts.

The title says it all, this is an absolute joy to read. Set during the course of one day, with many flashbacks this is the tale of Joy Bang, who with her sisters became a girl group and had a hit record. Joy has died before the opening of the book and her passing is viewed through the eyes of a superb character and absolutely unreliable narrator Baby Palatine, a neighbour of the Bang girls. Her life has always revolved around Joy and her family. Celebrity, family secrets and truth are weaved so proficiently in this excellent novel. If Marsha Hunt’s novels have passed you by this is the place to start. Her second novel “Free” (1992) seems to me to be a less satisfying work. I’m not sure whether it is because it is set further in the past but it seems to lack the sheer confidence in structure and narrative style which made the debut so delightful. It’s still good but not as essential as “Joy”. I have her 1998 novel “Like Venus Falling” sat on my shelves, it is a recent acquisition and I hope to get round to reading it soon.

In 2004 Marsha Hunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a high profile battle with the disease and produced a best- selling account of these times in “Undefeated” (2005) which she still thankfully is. For the cover of this Patrick Lichfield recreated his famous naked Vogue shoot. At one time she was writer-in-residence at a prison in Ireland, where she now lives. Her collaboration with inmates led to an Irish bestseller of their stories “The Junk Yard” (1999). This is a woman who seems to have lived so many lives in one and has achieved success in many fields, but for me, “Joy” is her greatest achievement.

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Joy was published by Virago in 1990. Editions seem to have been published over the years by Flamingo , Penguin and Fourth Estate and Harper Collins. The image used above is from the Fourth Estate e-book edition which is available from the usual outlets.

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