The World According to Renee

Views, Reviews, Short Stories and More…

Review: Jack of Diamonds

I’ve just finished reading the very last of Bryce Courtenay’s published works. Since I’ve been a fan for a long time now, I’m a bit emotional as I write this.

Jack of Diamonds follows Jack Spayd from a young boy in Canada to adulthood (where he ends up, I’ll leave as a surprise).

There are two main criticisms I have about the novel: 1) it’s not set in or anywhere near Australia and 2) there’s very little plot.

Bryce Courtenay was born and raised in South Africa, which he writes about in several novels, but the majority of his work is set in Australia. Despite it being his adopted country, he knows everything that makes us uniquely Aussie, and I really missed it in this novel. It’s not just the North American ‘voice’ Courtenay has used (being Canadian, Jack calls his mother “mom”, which seems very out-of-place for a Bryce Courtenay novel), but there’s just one Australian character and he’s just peripheral. With all Jack’s adventures, why couldn’t have at least passed through Australia? Set up a gig in Sydney for a while before moving on?

The second criticism is there’s no juicy plot. Jack’s adventures, whilst being very interesting, are really just a string of occurrences within a lifetime. Jack is immensely likable, so whatever scrape he finds himself in is instantly forgivable with no real drama, as the reader already knows he lives to tell the tale. 

Having said that, I loved the novel. It’s very easy to read; some of Courtenay’s other works take a couple of tries to get into them but this one was easy from the get go. Courtenay paints a vivid picture of Depression-era Canada and post-war America and the struggle to bring jazz from a black man’s world into a white person’s world. I found some parts dragged on a bit, particularly when getting into the nitty gritty of the Mafia. I felt the story was lost behind this unnecessary complexity. It’s almost as if the author started out with a basic framework of where and what was to happen, then fleshed it out to almost 700 pages because that’s what the audience expects. Certainly this is how the epilogue reads… Which brings me to my last point.

During the writing of Jack of Diamonds, Bryce himself was diagnosed and treated for stomach cancer. As a result of poor health, the novel took almost two years to write, something which clearly played on his mind especially towards the end, which feels rushed (indeed, Bryce died just a few weeks after the novel’s publication). He adds an epilogue stating that his own “use-by date” is nearing and he won’t have time to write the sequel, but here’s what happens. No doubt those extra few pages could have been fleshed out to another 700 page novel had Bryce conquered his illness, but sadly, it wasn’t to be.

What we have is masterful swansong. Especially as the novel was his last, I’d dearly love to see Australia in there, a final goodbye to the country he called home for over fifty years. Nevertheless, Jack is an endearing character, impossible not to love and sympathise for. There are echoes of Courtney’s previous works such as The Potato Factory and The Power of One but Jack of Diamonds really stands alone.

Thankyou Bryce, for sharing your stories with us. What am I going to do without an annual Bryce Courtenay novel to read over Christmas?

8 out of 10 bookmarks.


January 30, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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