I hadn’t heard of this book a week ago, but upon finding this heavily-thumbed paperback with a – to my browsing eye – provocative title, I pulled it out and read the blurb. This, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is a hugely acclaimed and multi-award-winning novel that has already (it was published in 2007) begun to be described as a Canadian classic. Knowing this, too, it seemed appropriate for me to give it a read, being as I am both in Canada and under-read in terms of Canadian fiction.
The Book of Negroes is a successful and popular book and is now on the syllabus of many Canadian high schools, so if I was a decade younger and had gone to school here, I would have already read it. I’m neither of those things (obviously), but it’s a stirring, significant, text and I can absolutely understand why this emotive, uncompromising literary novel has such a reputation here, and I’m surprised it isn’t better known back in Europe.
As you can probably guess from its title, The Book of Negroes is historical fiction about race. It is a huge novel (this edition nearly 700 pages!) and it charts the journey of Aminata Diallo from her childhood in rural West Africa in the mid-18th century to her old age amongst the abolitionists of London most of a century later. Lawrence Hill describes Aminata’s abduction by slavers, the dreadful journey across the Atlantic and her adulthood of pain, violence, betrayal but – always – hope. The novel opens with Aminata in London in 1802, so I’m not giving any spoilers. Hill’s reader knows from the start that Aminata ends up “free” and literate but without her family, and – as we all studied history at school – we can begin to infer some of the horrors that she must, by necessity, have lived through to get to this stage of her life. What follows is intelligent, evocative and deeply moving prose that pulls a reader into the first person perspective of Aminata as she recounts her life. Her losses become our losses; her hopes, her fears, her regrets become ours too. I say “ours”, I mean mine: I must remember to be openly subjective when writing about books. How Lawrence Hill’s fiction made me feel is not the only way his novel can be read. Of course I know that. For me, then, this novel wrapped me tight in the mind of Aminata and as tense, as unhappy, as scared and as worried as she was at different stages of the novel, I was too.
The Book of Negroes is almost 700 pages long, but it is a quick and uncomplicated read. Hill’s writing is that crisp kind of literary fiction (which I don’t read very often) that sucks my reading self inside it like fictional quicksand. I sat in the back of a car travelling 300km… I sat on the subway going back and forth about this big city… I sat in an under-stuffed sofa sipping on a Rum Old Fashioned… and I disappeared.
The heated interiors of polar vortex-y Toronto slipped away and I was there, with Aminata, “catching babies” with her mother in small villages, I was with her as she resisted the advances of the (thankfully) shame-ridden ship’s doctor as they sailed for America, I was with her as she recovered from the near-devastating health repercussions of that journey, I was with her as she illicitly learned to read and was punished for doing so, I was with her as she fell in fruitless love, as she was assaulted and praised, trapped and rescued, helped and abused, respected and debased… I was in her head, in her world, as the horrors of the 18th century played out in Lawrence Hill’s glorious novel. Aminata – who is not a “real” historical figure, unlike many of the secondary characters – breathes here, and the knowledge of her eventual “safe” arrival in London does nothing to assuage a reader (this reader) of her comfort in advance of that arrival. I forgot I was reading a book, a work of fiction, because Hill has crafted something here that I found impossible to snap myself away or awake from – the fictional world is a fictional person: Hill writes what Aminata sees, what Aminata feels, what Aminata smells and tastes and touches and eats and drinks and wants and believes… The Book of Negroes is an intensely personal narrative and the copious detail (never dense, never too much) belies the huge amount of research that Hill admits to in a uniquely readable ‘For further reading’ section at the end of the book.
I’m kinda just gushing, but it’s a really fucking strong novel and I think – whoever you are – you’d probably enjoy it. The writing is clear and crisp and personal, laden with period detail related to many uncomfortable truths that many of us ignore or forget. This is a political novel, and it is personal too – for it is only those in positions of unbridled privilege who are ever thick enough to pretend these two things can be separated, innit.
Are there any faults? Well, I don’t like to write about anything without raising some kind of problem, and here I’d posit that the fact of Aminata’s intelligence makes her story less universal than it could have been. Of course, I see the literary value in a character who remains “powerless” though is demonstrably superior to most of the people she encounters. Aminata learns languages and skills incredibly quickly, and it is thanks to her inner resources that she survives for as long as she does, how she also manages to escape from slavery, and how she avoids a return to it during a heart-breaking scene towards the novel’s conclusion. Of course, writing about a person who is exceptional doesn’t diminish the reality of the lived experience for the hundreds of thousands of others who also lived through these vile, racist horrors, but it does definitely make a book that’s easier to sell to a white readership.
Am I being too cynical? Probably. Is cynicism, too, something that only those in positions of unbridled privilege can choose to affect?
I read The Book of Negroes and wept many times: it’s a beautiful novel, clever and simple, exciting and calm, damning but also optimistic. The world isn’t perfect, and maybe things felt in 2007 like they might continue to improve, and maybe in 2019 they don’t, but this novel is uplifting (though should it be?), it’s moving (which it has to be) and it’s incredibly readable (which not every book manages to be), so why not give it a go?
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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