I really loved Marsha Hunt’s novel “Joy” (one of my 100 Essential books reviewed here) and also got a lot of pleasure from “Free”, although it was not as strong as her debut. This novel, her third, slips in nicely between the two. Hunt claims it as fiction loosely based on the life of Dorothy Dandridge, an actress and singer who swept to a short-lived fame but struggled in the Hollywood of the 1950’s and 60’s but whose significance as an African-American actress at Hollywood of the time is huge.
This is the story of Irene O Brien who relates her tale, beginning with a catalyst event in her life from 1965- a presumed suicide attempt. The story moves back to Irene’s childhood and a singing partnership with her sister, a marriage which sours the sibling relationship and the birth of her autistic daughter Nadine. Irene struggles increasingly to cope with Nadine, not knowing what was wrong with her, as her own work as an artist’s model takes off. This leads eventually to movie work in Hollywood, where, for this beautiful woman, the casting couch is very much in evidence. Irene’s career highlight is an Oscar nomination but such fame is only fleeting as Hollywood is not, at this time, set up to sustain a career and provide consistent work for the African- American actress.
To put this into context with the inspiration, Dorothy Dandridge, was born around the same time as Hunt’s fictional character, spent her childhood as part of a song and dance act with her sister, gave birth and struggled with a brain-damaged daughter and received the first Oscar Best Actress nomination for an African-American actress for her role in “Carmen Jones”in 1955 (losing to Grace Kelly). In the years following this her career fell into decline and she died aged 42 in 1965. Donald Bogle in his book “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams – The Story Of Black Hollywood” (2005) says this of Dandridge;
“For some, she represented unfulfilled promise. For others, she was a sign of the power of drive and ambition to break down barriers. For others, she was a doomed beauty, struggling heroically against personal demons and the fundamental racism of the industry.”
I was very much drawn into Irene’s story. Hunt has the knack of revealing and withholding just the right amount of information to keep the reader on their toes. (This was achieved superbly in “Joy” by having the superb character, Baby Palatine, as an unreliable narrator). Irene’s life takes place in a time of great social and cultural change. She was born in 1923, was a young woman during the war, participated in the madness that was Hollywood in the 1950’s where audiences began to diminish as television took hold and witnessed much civil unrest leading to the disenchantment for that generation in the 1960’s. It is all very convincing and as Irene says in her final words in her memoir;
“…but doesn’t every life amount to more than a few paragraphs and time-worn images?
In my case, like Ethel Waters used to sing, ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.’……
Because no-one knows us like we know ourselves.”
Marsha Hunt has been involved in other projects since the publication of “Like Venus Fading” but has not produced another novel. In her three novels she has shown vast potential and I am sure there is another great work within her. For me, this misses out on the five stars because Irene’s story is so close to that of Dorothy Dandridge. I would have liked there to have been more of a step away from the source material to let Hunt’s imagination take full flight. It is however a compelling tale which needed to be told.
Like Venus Fading was published by Flamingo in 1998