When my supervisor suggested I read Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes I was delighted. Delighted because I had already read the book in 2007, and enjoyed it a great deal; and delighted because the narrative aligns nicely with ideas about historical fiction I am working on. So this post begins with the caveat that I already liked the book when I read it, and that I wanted to like it again while I was re-reading it. No surprise: I liked it.
The novel has won spades of awards and garnered Lawrence Hill the kind of critical attention he has deserved for years (his novel Any Known Blood is also terrific and well worth the read). The protagonist, Aminata Diallo, speaks with a captivating voice as she recounts her experiences being captured and kidnapped in Africa, transported to America, enslaved in the indigo fields and later in a domestic setting, escape to New York and then Nova Scotia, a return to Africa (Sierre Leone) and finally a journey to England to work with abolitionists. The epic journey is signaled from the first few pages, so it is not necessarily the particular destinations that strike the reader as remarkable, but rather the tenacity and grace of the speaker.
I did find the first time that the section on Aminata’s return to Africa dragged because there was no close relationship between Aminata and anyone else to follow; and perhaps because unlike the other sequences, time passes very quickly, whole years disappear in pages. In the earlier sections a year or two is given a fairly large chunk of text, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the setting and relationships. This second time through I did not find the section dragged as much, but it still stood out because of its different narrative scope.
The descriptions are vivid and detailed; the voice is consistent and engrossing; the plot is painful, yet important for bringing to readers a story not often told in popular fiction and for doing so with great effect.