By Danyel Smith. Crown, 304 pp., $33.95, hardcover.
For those who make a living in the music industry-and particularly in hip-hop-there's no better read than Danyel Smith's second work of fiction, Bliss. And for those who have never kicked it at an album-release party, interviewed a rapper, or been privy to backstage drama, the novel offers a spellbinding glimpse into the world of urban music.
Bliss's central character, Eva Glenn, is a high-rolling, scotch-swilling, fly-ass executive at Roadshow Records intent on reviving the career of new-age soul diva Sunny (think Erykah Badu). During a showcase in the Bahamas, Eva discovers that she's pregnant. As she contemplates an abortion (it would be her fourth), she steadily loses the control and composure that are crucial to her life and work. She bolts to isolated Cat Island and ruminates on her messed-up family and her even more messed-up romances. Pulled between two lovers-cocky music mogul Ron and Sunny's manic-depressive brother/road manager D'Artagnan-Eva is forced to come to terms with her past and make a decision for her future.
Danyel Smith is a former editor in chief of VIBE magazine, and with Bliss she perfectly captures the heaven and hell that is the music industry. The extremes of hip-hop culture-the ruthlessness of the business, the rampant sexism, the wealth, the poverty, the rejection of baby boomer lifestyles and values-play out throughout the novel, but particularly in the complex bond between Eva and Ron. Equal parts power struggle and courtship, their dance embodies the fears and frustrations of today's generation. While both act as if their liaison is merely casual sex-each sleeping with one eye open so they can be the first to leave in the morning-they secretly want something more meaningful than detached hotel-room encounters. But they are terrified of the ugliness they saw in their parents' unions. The hope for Eva and Ron lies in their shared language: hip-hop.
Smith's beautifully crafted prose nails what that shared language is-what it feels like to inhabit this dysfunctional, insular little island that floats in the centre of mainstream culture. She also conveys how huge hip-hop is, yet how suffocating and small, how it moves you to tears and repels you at the same time. And how once in a while, even in the midst of all this messy chaos, you stumble upon something like bliss-a state of being that's tied up with music that shatters your defenses and makes you feel achingly alive.
Smith knows the power of a song. And with Bliss she's created a luscious, hip-hop-dedicated slow jam.