Jack of Diamonds, by Bryce Courtenay

Nine stars

It is always a great pleasure to read anything by Bryce Courtenay, as he takes a simple story idea and allows it to blossom. This style takes an idea and allows it to develop into something miraculous by the final page. In this novel, set mostly in Canada, I was able to have a true sense of nationalism as I allowed Courtenay to direct the story throughout the decades and lull me into a sense of reading comfort. Jack Spayd began life in the poorest part of Toronto, referred to as Cabbagetown. Making the best of the lot he has been given, Jack finds a lovely connection with his mother, but cowers whenever his alcoholic father approaches. With the Depression in full swing, Jack and his family are barely able to rub two coins together, but somehow they can find some degree of happiness. When, as a belated birthday present, Jack receives a harmonica from his father, he learns the power of music. Hanging outside the local jazz club, Jack hones his skills and makes an impression of the proprietress, Ms. Frostbite, who wants top open as many doors for him as she can. Enrolling him in formal piano lessons, Ms. Frostbite hopes that a classical foundation will allow him to develop further as a jazz musician. As with most everything else he tries, Jack masters it, though he pines for for the blues than anything Bach. Still not yet eighteen, Jack muddles around on the piano for Ms. Frostbite and others at the club, though he needs more experience and to make a name for himself. Jack heads out west, finding work and a new set of passions in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where yet another female influence steers him along a new and exciting pathway. Juicy Fruit may be a prostitute, but she has aspirations of being more under the big lights of New York. After a brief sojourn in Canada’s Prairies, Jack learns the art of poker, though it helps get him into more trouble than he can handle. Leaving trouble in the rear view mirror, Jack takes up the war effort and serves overseas, where he is able to discover new and exciting skills, before returning and trying to make a name for himself. An invitation to work in a still developing Las Vegas opens his eyes to both the racial divide of the United States and the mafia-run casinos of the city. While working as a jazz pianist, Jack discovers that Vegas is more than bright lights, seeing its seedier sides behind the proverbial curtain. There is much for him to learn at a time when Jack is coming of age, including more voyages and new-found friendships. Courtenay’s final novel before his death is as riveting as any of the others I have read. Full of powerful themes and highly entertaining plots, the reader is in for a treat as they watch the story come to life. Highly recommended for those readers who love detailed stories than have numerous plot twists, as well as those who love Bryce Courtenay’s work.

I believe that I have read every one of Bryce Courtenay’s novels and have loved them all! His attention to detail is like no author I have ever read, taking a story idea and spinning it in many directions, whereby the early characters seem to fade into the background as plots thicken and narratives weave in countless directions. Courtenay novels are not for the inexperienced reader, as they encompass not only a massive amount of information, but also go on for hundreds of pages, captivating those who can endure the journey. Jack Spayd is the perfect protagonist throughout this piece, allowing Courtenay to paint a wonderful portrait of his life through decades of life experiences, from the shanty homes in Cabbagetown to the pinnacle of his career as a piano bar worker in Las Vegas. Jack experiences much along the way and encounters a number of influential people along the way. As with many of Courtenay’s pieces, these characters enrich the life of the protagonist and serve to offer wonderful life lessons, even if they are only discovered later on in the novel. As Jack grows, his passion turns from protecting his mother to the wonders of music and even the love of various women in a romantic sense. His coming of age transpires in his late teens, though Courtenay eases him into it with experiences that keep the reader wanting to know more. I am blessed to have had the time to see Jack grow and develop all his skills, as the journey is one that could not be quickly stitched together by a lesser author. As I mentioned before, there are a handful of strong secondary characters whose influence and unique nature is an indelible mark on both the lives of the reader and Jack himself. Growth occurs throughout and the helpful advice resonates throughout this piece, helping the reader and Jack himself grow on a personal level. The story, Courtenay’s last, is as strong as any I have read, hitting the mark on the plight of history in the early to mid-20th century. Courtenay uses actual events in history as a backdrop while honing the wonders of this created plot that serves to teach the reader something along the way. While I will miss Bryce Courtenay and his ideas a great deal, I have many wonderful novels on which to pull insightful ideas and with a strong collection of characters. Be it the painful existence of apartheid-era South Africa, Australia’s outback, Dickensian England, or even the Orient (to name a few), Courtenay has left a mark just as strong as he did in this piece. For that I am blessed, as is any reader who accepts the challenge to come along as well.

Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for a spectacular personal farewell. You will be missed and it was a blessing to be a part of your writing life. May the angels gather at your feet for more storytelling!

The book fulfils Topic #4: Other Than Books in the Equinox #8 Reading Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons