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Book review: Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

24 November 2023

Mark Oakley reviews a tale of an alternative version of America

SOME of us first came across Francis Spufford by reading his book Unapologetic, his contemporary take on Christianity which fizzes with plausibility as it spells out faith’s antidotes to globalised superficiality. His third novel, Cahokia Jazz, similarly jolts us with recognitions, even though it is set in an alternative America in the 1920s, and is as inventive and unpredictable in its setting as it is in its thrilling plot.

Unfolding across six days, this is a detective novel with noir tendencies. It begins with a brutal murder on a roof, in a violent city where the residents are takouma (Native Americans), taklousa (African Americans), and takata (European Americans).

Contrary to what happened in history, in this story, smallpox brought over by the settlers has not wiped out the indigenous population. We discover ourselves in a metropolis of speakeasies and corrupt characters, using a language that we slowly begin to learn, and where racial tensions run high. The reader, as any watcher of today’s news might do, begins to ask what the real crime is — an individual act of lawlessness, or the society that it takes place in, created by a population of shady competitors rather than hopeful citizens?

Spufford is a remarkable writer. His lines are lyrical, creative, and atmospheric. His research is always substantial, but never domineering. His plots twist and turn, surprising and satisfying in equal measure. He is relentlessly original as an author, never raking over old ground, and his narrative nerve that significantly dares to tease our imaginations is to be welcomed for its refreshing generative qualities.

Cahokia Jazz is a prime example of his talent. It feels both classic and edgy, familiar but disorientating. It has both pace and depth. The exciting question that we are left with after finishing it is — what next?

The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is to be installed as Dean of Southwark on Advent Sunday.

Read an interview with Francis Spufford here.

Cahokia Jazz
Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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