Like Venus Fading – Marsha Hunt (Flamingo 1998)

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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.”

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Dorothy Dandridge

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.

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Like Venus Fading was published by Flamingo in 1998

 

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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