The final novel from Australia's favourite story teller, Bryce Courtenay.
Born and raised in a poor, working-class family in Toronto, Jack Spayd is the son of an unhappy marriage. But when he is given a harmonica as a young boy, he discovers a talent for music that will change his life forever. After being taken under the wing of 'Miss Frostbite', the owner of a local jazz club, Jack becomes a gifted musician, playing piano and harmonica.
After the death of his mother, he travels to Las Vegas and finds work in the clubs there, but is increasingly drawn to gambling. He earns a reputation as a good player, which brings him to the attention of the mafia. Jack wants to join the professional circuit, and to do that he needs serious money behind him. It's this need that sees him travel to the Belgian Congo, where he's heard it's possible to earn big money working in the most dangerous parts of the local copper mines.
He gradually falls in love with Africa - and then with a beautiful Ethiopian woman. They move to London, where they bring up a daughter who becomes a supermodel. In a dramatic twist, the story returns to Africa - and to a fortune in diamonds.
I am a huge fan of Bryce Courtenay having been introduced to him by a friend who gave me Tommo and Hawk. I was hooked and have read many of Courtenay's books since. I have enjoyed all of them and Jack of Diamonds is no exception. Reading this book was a somewhat emotional experience as this was published with a farewell from Courtenay, who three months prior to it's release had been told his gastric cancer was untreatable. He has written a heartfelt thank you to his readers at the conclusion of the book and an epilogue. I read the note from Courtenay first but didn't read the epilogue until I had finished the book.
Sadly Bryce Courtenay passed away on November the 22nd as I was half way through reading Jack of Diamonds. A very, very sad loss to all those who have enjoyed his stories over the years. To be reviewing Courtenay's final book at the conclusion of his life can only enhance the worth of this novel as any shortcomings are tempered by the knowledge that Courtenay ensured that this book, which was clearly intended to be followed by a sequel, did not just end without conclusion, no matter how rushed that might be.
This book is a lengthy tome at over 700 pages and is a hardback but weighs far less than I would have expected. It was easy to carry around, so I could snatch the odd page here and there, which was great as I was hooked from the moment I read the first page.
The main character in this book Jack Spayd is born into the slums of Toronto at the end of the 1920's. His father is an alcoholic who is physically abusive towards Jack and his mother. Jacks life changes forever when he gets a Harmonica and the story follows Jacks life as he escapes Cabbagetown and try's to make a life for himself following his dream of being a Jazz musician. This dream is complicated somewhat by his love of poker.
Written in the first person at times Jack's narrative is almost over detailed but I still found myself gripped to the pages. In fact the first 600 pages were totally gripping. I love historical novel's and this novel has clearly been well researched as it follows Jack from Canada to the rise of Las Vegas via his stint in World War Two. At the 600 page point though I wondered if this might have been the natural break for the end of Jack of Diamonds as Part Four has Jack moving to Africa (which may have been the logical beginning of the sequel) and the story becomes much less detailed and rushed and then ends with the Epilogue, for which I am thankful as I dislike books with no conclusion! As I mentioned previously the knowledge that this was intended to be the first book of Jack's life - rather than the only book of his life - means that having the ending not as it would have ultimately been (I won't spoil the ending) is so much better than not having the ending at all. That said however this is a brilliant book and definitely a Courtenay classic.
With Christmas coming up, and this already discounted at book shops, I would recommend Jack of Diamonds as a brilliant book for the summer and a great present for yourself or anyone who has enjoyed a Bryce Courtenay novel in the past.
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