Tuesday 1 November 2016

The Book of Negroes

Finished The Book of Negroes by  Lawrence Hill the other day.

About a year ago, I sublet my house whilst I went to visit family in the UK. The person I sublet to left with half my book collection. I was mighty peeved, but they did leave behind two copies of The Book of Negroes. I lent one to a friend and had the other on my shelf for months. People told me it was really good, so eventually I picked it up.

I let out an audible squee of delight. The copy I'd kept turned out to be deckle-edged! Something you rarely see. A beautiful, weighty, deckle-edged tome. I was predisposed to like it.

In all honesty though, this is an extremely accomplished novel. It's the story of Aminata Diallo, captured as a girl in Sierra Leone and transported on a slave ship to the indigo plantations of America, escaping to the north and then to Canada before embarking on a longer journey still. 

Very well told, and I always have a fascination with stories written by authors in the opposite gender. Hill is a man writing very convincingly from a woman's perspective. So well that I would never have known unless I'd seen his picture on the book sleeve. I love when literature transcends boundaries in such a way. It's artfully affirming that we can switch places with one another if we have the desire. That is, after all, the point of literature? A shape-shifting magic trick.

Really well told, completely immersing.

As part of my fiction writing course, I teach a unit on the history of fiction, which covers a bit about European and African literature. One of the people we cover is Olaudah Equiano, a freed Nigerian slave who also went by the name Gustavus Vassa. Vassa wrote his memoirs in the late seventeen hundreds and they were highly influential in helping to end the slave trade in the UK. The Book of Negroes is written as Aminata's memoirs, put to paper in order to help the abolitionists in their cause. It was nice to see mention of Equiano as being an inspiration to Aminata. A nice blend of fact meets fiction.

The novel won the Commonwealth Prize in 2008 and was turned into a mini-series last year.

Gustavus Vassa

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