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Sins in Blue

by Brian Kaufman

Rating: *****

Sins in Blue tells the story of Willie Johnson, a broken-down old bluesman and his chance and unlikely friendship with young runaway, Kennedy Barnes. Kennedy is convinced he can resurrect Willie and bring his music to the ears of the world. The aging blues guitarist knows this is his last chance but will old habits and even older heartbreak prove to be his undoing once again…

Sins in Blue is a book with a whole lot of soul; the dialogue is warm and rich and flows like honey through the novel. The writing is so naturally expressive and rhythmic, it’s supremely comfortable to read despite the plot dealing with painfully raw emotions. The majority of the narrative is set in late 1960s Colorado but as Kennedy gently unravels Willie’s history, we are treated to flashbacks to the late 20s and 30s in Mississippi. The contextual writing in both settings is subtle yet authentic and transports you absolutely. Instead of Willie simply reminiscing, the flashback chapters are told in third person with a life and plot of their own. The main characters in these passages; Jackwash and Luella, are incredibly well-drawn and Luella’s downfall is especially pitiful. Although Willie is fairly expansive with Kennedy, there remains a tight economy of emotion between him, Jackwash and Luella and these paragraphs are all the more powerful for what is not overtly stated but implied by look or gesture.

Willie is his own worst enemy and he knows this, he just cannot seem to help himself. From the beginning, his weariness and frustration are palpable and he is both amusing and infuriating. The wry, self-aware observations made in a voice dripping with regret inhabit your head like one of his old blues riffs. But then he becomes so drunk he can barely lift his guitar; disappointingly familiar behaviour that’s all the more poignant as a result. The plot does not follow the trajectory one would expect and I thought it worked, because it mirrors Willie’s life; the search for redemption does not always end where and when you believe it will. The twist at the end of Chapter 3 was a clever, thought-provoking and quite brave move. It completely changed the dynamic and made the book far more interesting. Personally, Kennedy was a little under-developed in places but this is essentially Willie Johnson’s story and Kennedy is the facilitator so, in that respect, he worked well.

Sins in Blue is a skilfully written and mellifluous novel that is richly textured with the overwhelming sadness and regret of wasted opportunities. Highly recommended. Buy from:

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