Books Read in 2021 – 20. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Genre: LGBT, Romance, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1956

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: David is about to board a train to Paris but he is paralysed by memories of his relationship with Giovanni who, it transpires, is about to be executed. David thinks back over their relationship and his relationship with his girlfriend, Hella who has now returned to the US, trying to understand how he and Giovanni came to have such a tragic story.

Time on shelf: I’ve wanted to read this since I was at university some thirty years ago but I only purchased a copy in the last six months.

Maybe I waited too long to read this book because I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I spent most of the time feeling irritated by David and wishing he would sort himself out which was hardly fair. I felt a lot of sympathy for Giovanni and his tragic end but ultimately I didn’t connect with this story as much as I thought I would.

It is beautifully written. Baldwin’s prose slowly and surefootedly explores David’s history and his psyche. We learn of his early experiences with a fellow teenager called Joe which shake him up so badly that he is unable to acknowledge such feelings within himself when he meets Giovanni some years later. He starts running away from himself at this point and never really catches up.

The description of David’s difficulties in coming to terms with his sexuality are painful to read. It is so difficult to see him refuse to be drawn into loving Giovanni even though it is clear that he feels something for him. At one point Giovanni says ‘You do, sometimes, remind me of the kind of man who is tempted to put himself in prison in order to avoid being hit by a car’ which accurately sums David’s behaviour up. He hides himself away in preparation for the hurt he feels will come.

Hella comes back from Spain and David abandons Giovanni. He makes himself take the socially acceptable route, still running away from what he feels are the unacceptable aspects of his sexuality. He begins to notice what he calls ‘fairy’ mannerisms in Giovanni when they meet up, a manifestation of his uncomfortableness with his past relationship with him. Hella and David move to the south of France as they are now to be married but it starts to feel inevitable that David will realise that he cannot marry her and that it will be too late for Giovanni.

The ending was tragic but it didn’t upset me as much as I thought it might. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m getting too old to have much patience with the sort of willful stupidity that David displays in his refusal of Giovanni. Nonetheless, it is an important novel putting sexuality, gender, alienation and nationality under the lens and examining them without mercy.

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