Earlier this year, I was enchanted by the cover of Blitz Bazawule‘s debut novel, The Scent of Burnt Flowers. The summary was similarly intriguing, so I requested it on NetGalley. I was thrilled when I was approved for an advanced copy of the book. The Scent of Burnt Flowers is out now, and if you enjoy historical fiction, magical realism, and tales that weave in bigger issues, this is the book for you.
Special thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine for providing me with an ARC of this book!
Melvin and Bernadette are a happy couple engaged to be married when, at the end of 1965, their entire world shifts. Fleeing a racist attack and certain persecution, they become fugitives as the new year begins, fleeing all the way to Ghana. Melvin’s college friend is now the president of Ghana, and he hopes he’ll grant them asylum… if only they could reach him. With the help of a local musician, Kwesi, they try to reach safety, all the while narrowing outrunning the FBI agent on their heels. But while this couple dreams of a new start, a love triangle and political unrest threaten to shatter it all.
Going into The Scent of Burnt Flowers, I anticipated a lyrical, moving story both bolstered by history and softened by a whimsical lens. I was partially right; indeed, it is lyrical and filled with history. However, I was unprepared for the different layers at play and for the increasing strangeness of it all.
The novel unfolds like a dream, getting to know characters as they are now and with flashbacks to an earlier event in their life. As the action progresses, the reader is frequently thrown off course, like following a sudden memory before refocusing on the present scenario. It feels like being in the characters’ minds, following their trains of thought and connecting the dots with what’s going on in the main plot line. Sometimes these tangents can feel too irrelevant, but generally they add extra nuance to the story.
The Scent of Burnt Flowers is very much magical realism, a genre that I admittedly struggle with. Bernadette has a history relating to mermaids; Kwesi has a magic guitar that emits flowers when he plays. The magical elements are subtle at first, but grow stronger until the novel’s fantastical end.
History – both of the United States and of Ghana – also plays a large role here. In the Jim Crow south, Melvin and Bernadette became part of an altercation that took a bad turn, pushing them to flee the country. But their safe haven is in deep political unrest. Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, is facing violent coups and attempts to have him deposed. He’s not in a position to help his college friend – if he’s even getting Melvin’s messages at all.
There’s a cat-and-mouse element here, too, with our protagonists barely staying ahead of the rogue FBI officer who’s pinning his career on catching the fugitives. This agent gets more and more attention as the novel progresses. Throw in some other higher powers (including Russians, the CIA, and the so-called Shapeshifter Vanguard), and this story has much more to it than a couple on the run.
By the end, the whole story kind of falls apart – intentionally, it seems. A love triangle, political upheaval, and the fear that accompanies a life of exile all mesh together into a volatile climax.
The Scent of Burnt Flowers is a quick read, despite its non-linear timeline and numerous layers. The magical realism did not quite work for me, but it’s a genre I struggle with in general, so take that with a grain of salt. What I did enjoy was the lyrical quality of the writing, the look at Ghana’s history and politics, and the setting of Ghana in the 1960s. This is an intriguing debut, and I look forward to reading more from Blitz Bazawule.
Get the Book
You can buy The Scent of Burnt Flowers here – it’s available now as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.
Please note that the above link is an Amazon affiliate link and I may earn a commission on any purchases you make.
|The Scent of Burnt Flowers by Blitz Bazawule|
|Genre||Historical Fiction; Magical Realism|
|Number of Pages||256|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||June 28, 2022|
Fleeing persecution in 1960s America, a Black couple seeks asylum in Ghana, but fresh dangers and old secrets threaten their newfound freedom in this hypnotic debut novel.
“I am truly blown away by this novel.”–Jacqueline Woodson, New York Times bestselling author of Red at the Bone
When the windshield of his Chevy Impala shatters in a dark diner parking lot in Alabama, Melvin moves without thinking. A split-second reaction marrows in his bones from the days of war, but this time it is the safety of his fiancé, Bernadette, at stake. Impulse keeps them alive, and yet they flee with blood on their hands. What is life like now that they are fugitives? Pack passports. Empty bank accounts. Set their old life on fire. The couple disguise themselves as a pastor and a reluctant pastor’s wife who’s hiding a secret from her fiancé. With a persistent FBI agent on their trail, they travel to Ghana to seek the help of Melvin’s old college friend who happens to be the country’s embattled president, Kwame Nkrumah.
The couple’s chance encounter with Ghana’s most beloved highlife musician, Kwesi Kwayson, who’s on his way to perform for the president, sparks a journey full of suspense, lust, magic, and danger as Nkrumah’s regime crumbles around them. What was meant to be a fresh start quickly spirals into chaos, threatening both their relationship and their lives. Kwesi and Bernadette’s undeniable attraction and otherworldly bond cascades during their three-day trek, and so does Melvin’s intense jealousy. All three must confront one another and their secrets, setting off a series of cataclysmic events.
Steeped in the history and mythology of postcolonial West Africa at the intersection of the civil rights movement in America, this gripping and ambitious debut merges political intrigue, magical encounters, and forbidden romance in an epic collision of morality and power.
About the Author
Blitz Bazawule is a multidisciplinary artist born in Ghana. His feature directorial debut, The Burial of Kojo, premiered on Netflix via ARRAY Releasing. He co-directed Beyoncé’s Black Is King, which earned him a Grammy nomination. Bazawule is set to direct the musical version of The Color Purple for Warner Bros. His artwork has been featured at the Whitney Biennial. He is also a TED senior fellow and a Guggenheim fellow.