Monday, 29 August 2011

Forbidden Love

Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin tells the story of David, a twenty-something American living in Paris. David is struggling with his sexually. He is engaged to Hella, but when his fiancée travels to Spain, David begins a relationship with Italian barman Giovanni. His days and nights with Giovanni are glorious, filled with drunken love in their small room. Giovanni’s room is dark and private, and there they are safe to love one another.

But a shadow lurks over them, as David knows one day Hella will return and he must marry her as promised and have a family. David’s greatest struggle is with himself as he is unwilling to face his homosexuality. He sets out to prove he is straight by finding women to sleep with.

When Hella returns he must break with Giovanni, forcing both men into turmoil. Giovanni’s life ends in tragedy and David cannot reconcile his feelings. 

Baldwin is an amazing author and in less than 160 pages he explores complex human relationships and the subject of homophobia and social isolation in such a beautiful, readable way. Baldwin tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, unfurling details with a deliberate pace, and bringing life to the characters in such a way that you can feel their emotions.

Despite the relationship at the centre of the Giovanni’s Room, I would not classify this as a gay novel – it is a universal story of love, regret, heartache and loneliness.

This is the second Baldwin novel I have read. The first, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), about a dysfunctional family facing racism in Harlem, further demonstrates Baldwin’s genius and is one of my favourites.