Cover of book: What Happened, Miss Simone?

Alan Light
What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a biography of legendary musician Nina Simone, commissioned by the company that produced the 2015 film documentary of the same title. New York Times journalist Alan Light was given access to all of the extensive research gathered for the film, and in writing, naturally, he is able to present a much deeper and more detailed view of this enigmatic woman’s life. Yet given that Light was only privy to secondary material, researched by director Liz Garbus and her team, his limitations as biographer are obvious. Not least that his subject was “a wildly unreliable narrator”, as Light admits.

Structured chronologically, Light attempts to present an objective story of Simone from her birth in 1933 until her death in 2003. The concrete facts of her professional career are plotted carefully in stark contrast to the elusive, erratic and often contradictory (and sadly, mental illness-riddled) story of Simone’s personal life. As an experienced journalist, Light is removed from the story; he sticks to the facts and refuses to engage in assumptions. In some ways the reader is let down in this respect. The first half of the book plods slightly – an incredible life by all accounts reduced to a dry chronology – chart ratings, album titles, performance appearances, she was here and then she was there.

Surprisingly, with fewer facts and a mess of contradictory material, the final third of the book is ultimately more enjoyable for the reader. That is not to say the content is easy – the last 30 years of Simone’s life, a complex period when her mental health was unravelling to the point of self-destruction, were only loosely documented, if at all. It is heartbreaking reading as she lurches from one doomed-to-fail scenario to the next; every situation is loaded with promise until one turns the page.

And yet, as with any biographer of the dead, in adhering to strict journalistic practice Light presents a greater truth – the great unknown that was his subject. There are holes in our understanding of Simone, but how completely can we truly know anyone? Light never states this problem directly, but rather leaves it to the prime minister of Barbados and sometime lover of the musician, Errol Barrow, who so poignantly offers: “What can any of us know with Nina Simone?”  BT

Canongate, 320pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2016 as "Alan Light, What Happened, Miss Simone?".

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