James Baldwin is better known for his essays, but this is no rational think-piece. This is love of the gut-wrenching-temporary-madness-inducing kind. Hailed as a queer fiction masterpiece, this is one of the most agonising break-ups I’ve ever witnessed, regardless of sexuality. It’s brilliant and tragic.
American abroad David hears that his former lover, handsome and charismatic Giovanni, is due to be executed. He reminisces on their meeting in a Parisian bar and subsequent brief love affair. They bully and bicker and flirt their way around decadent, squalid Paris with crackling intensity.
Told from David’s perspective, it’s also about being an outsider and the search for identity- be the it that of American or European, straight or gay, out or closeted. Some of this is quite literal at times, verging on cliche. I’m not entirely convinced by the Paris setting (seems pale and unreal outside the confines of the room) or peripheral characters either.
I don’t need to be though, because in this novel the only ones that matter are David and Giovanni. Baldwin’s gorgeous prose expresses all those relatable, nuanced, complex emotions in the life cycle of a love affair so accurately that I never once doubt in Giovanni and David. Even if they doubt themselves.
Read: To feel grateful when you regret a break-up and wonder what could have been.