The Book of Negroes (Hill)

The Book of Negroes - Lawrence Hill

I feel as though I learned a great deal reading this wonderful novel. I have never known much about the specifics of the slave trade, or about slavery in the U.S., and Hill, with his extensive research, has managed to make it clear how very complex and nuanced the whole thing was, with multiple agents all pursuing their own ends. The parts of the novel dealing with the well-intentioned but badly realized resettlement attempts of slaves in both Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone were equally interesting, and, in some ways, just as distressing.


I don't know if Hill has stretched the possible by making his female narrator as impressively literate and articulate as he has, but I know I appreciate Aminata Diallo as a character very much because of that articulateness, so I entirely forgive him if that's a bit of an anachronism. The one thing I might not completely forgive is the somewhat unlikely reunion of mother and daughter (May) in London at the end of Aminata's life, but since I was thoroughly caught up in her desolation and isolation as life took from her one loved one or dear friend after another, I felt the need of that sweetness too. Fiction can afford to be a little more generous than life, perhaps.


I'm disappointed, but not surprised, that the American publisher chose to change the historically accurate and very appropriate title, for fear of poor sales (and worse). I listened to President Obama's emotional speech on the subject of American race relations today, and was humbly grateful to live in a country where - while we are far from having the answers or solving the bigotry problem - race relations are, for various historical reasons, decidedly less explosive a topic.


Aminata's narrative - this novel - is positioned by the frame as a slave narrative that would help push forward the British abolition of the slave trade (and, much later, slavery itself). However, Hill did not attempt to mimic the sound or format of genuine slave narratives from the period, and I'm rather glad he didn't, because it allowed him to give Aminata a much stronger novelistic voice, incorporating direct dialogue and personal reflections in a way that just would not ring true if placed more consciously in the 18th-century literary voice.


I've come late to Lawrence Hill. I have a feeling it won't take me nearly as long to get to another one of his works.


Very highly recommended.