The Ballad of Perilous Graves
The Ballad of Perilous Graves is one of the books we picked for a finalist in the Crawford Award. It has been talked about by a lot of people and is on a few other award shortlists. Deservedly so, I think, though I have a few qualms about structure.
Most of the action takes place in Nola, which is a parallel reality version of New Orleans and home to the Perilous Graves of the title. Perry, as his friends and family call him, is a ordinary-ish school kid with a massive crush on his neighbour, Peaches. She appears to have some sort of super powers. Perry’s little sister, Brendy, is forever teasing him about his being in love.
The action begins when the haint (ghost) known as Doctor Professor makes a surprise appearance in the street. It is immediately obvious that Nola is not an ordinary city. Ghosts are real. Indeed, there’s a whole dead quarter of the city where they live. You can hire a ghost taxi and go visit them.
This being N’Awlins, the magic is fully bound up in the music of the city. My knowledge of jazz is painfully poor, but Doctor Professor seems to be based primarily on Professor Longhair, with a side helping of his most famous pupil, Dr. John.
The basic plot of the book is that someone has stolen a bunch of Doctor Professor’s songs, and they are now running around the city free in human form. And someone is trying to kill them.
In our world, Casey Ravel is back in New Orleans. In his youth, Casey and his cousin, Jaylon, had been hot shot street artists. Casey evacuated after Katrina, in part because he was scared at how lifelike their art had become. Characters that you paint are not supposed to get up off the wall and walk away. But, while you can take the boy out of New Orleans, you can’t take New Orleans out of the boy. Freshly back in town, Casey checks in on his cousin, and finds to his horror that Jaylon has not given up his art as he’d promised, he’s been perfecting it.
So we have a classic two-streamed story that will come together at the end and thereby explain a lot of what has been going on. That, at least, is the theory. Oh, and the bad guy with too many tentacles and not enough hands will get what is coming to him.
There’s so much that I loved about this book. N’Awlins is, after all, one of my favourite places on Earth. This book is infused with music and food, and a sense of New Orleans culture that could only have been written by a Black author. I also love the characters of Perry, Peaches and Brendy. I love that Casey is a trans man, and this has nothing to do with the plot.
But, with my editor hat on, I also think that Alex Jennings has just a little too much going on. I love being confused by a book, but I do expect to become less confused as it goes on. I’m not sure that I ever got a handle on all the various threads in this one. Maybe that was the point. Maybe neat endings are a foolish pre-occupation of white people. But if you love N’Awlins like I do, then this books is well worth your time, even if it does leave your head spinning at the end.
Title: The Ballad of Perilous Graves
By: Alex Jennings
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