Reviewed by Joely Black
Jackdaw is one of the most unusual novels I’ve read. It is not a conventional fantasy story but an exploration of creativity, sanity, and perhaps even the nature of art and truth itself. Tade Thompson tells the tale of a fictionalised version of himself tasked with writing a novella inspired by the life and work of the artist Francis Bacon. Which parts are authentic—and which imaginary—is left to anybody wishing to do some intense Googling. As the tale and Thompson’s life unravel, it becomes clear to the reader that reality itself is perhaps on shaky ground.
This is not so much a novel about Francis Bacon himself but the creative process itself. It is about what it takes to find inspiration, understand other people, and understand ourselves. It all starts reasonably enough. Tade Thompson, author and psychiatrist is commissioned to write a piece inspired by Francis Bacon and his work. The Tade we meet in this novel is very much like the Tade writing it, a trick that allows him to play with the thinness of the boundary between art and artist, subject and object.
At first, he struggles to get going. After doing a great deal of practical research, Tade diagnoses his problem as an inability to connect emotionally with the object of this novel. Books are not enough; reading about the artist’s life and work gives him no sense of Bacon’s inner world. This leads him on a journey encompassing the creative process, medicine, the body as subject and object, Yoruba religious practice, and trauma.