Black Dance is a family story that spans generations, cultures, and continents, all tied together by the beat of capoeira drumming. (Capoeira is a martial art of Brazilian origin that incorporates dance and music.)
As successful screenwriter Milo Noirlac lies dying, his partner, the director Paul Schwartz, takes him through the story of his life. Huston presents the novel in 10 parts, alternating among the perspectives of Milo, Milo’s grandfather Neil (an Irish rebel and poet), and Awinita, a teen prostitute and Milo’s mother.
We meet Neil in 1910, when he is fighting against the occupation of Ireland and striving to be a writer like his friends “Jimmy” Joyce and William Yeats. Neil eventually escapes to Quebec in search of a better life (and literary success), only to lose himself to a domineering Quebecois family. Awinita’s sections recount the native girl’s tragic life. While Huston renders Awinita as a wholly believable character, repeated scenes of violence toward her begin to lose their potency.
Milo survives a childhood of physical and sexual abuse and eventually achieves success, but he is never portrayed as someone to root for. By framing Milo’s story as a screenplay-in-progress (complete with stage directions such as “INTERIOR – DAY”), Huston adds a layer of detachment to her story. Terrible things happen, but, before they get emotionally overwhelming, someone yells “CUT,” effectively breaking the reader’s bond with the characters. This effect is compounded by Milo’s constant passivity.
Huston is a very talented writer, and offers readers vivid experiences. However, these experiences never manage to coalesce into anything particularly riveting. Black Dance is filled with believable characters often dealing with heartbreaking drama. It would likely make a good film; as a novel, it is somewhat drawn out and repetitive.