Wednesday, December 28, 2011

the book of negroes: review

NOTE - this review has been sitting in drafts for a month ... some of my impressions may be slightly dulled. 

For some reason before I started reading this book, I thought it was non-fiction. Of course it would be ridiculous to have a first-person narrative from years surrounding the American Revolution only pop onto the literary scene in the last few years, but still ... I thought it was a research construction of a story. So it took me a bit to get into the very traditional novel structure The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill.

Hill's writing is lovely. There's a reason this book was such a huge hit when it was published in 2007 and continues to garner its share of attention. But it's a little too lovely - I'm reminded of an old trapper, Tom,  who was a neighbour near our farm when I was a kid. He came for dinner one evening, and at some point started leafing through a new Robert Bateman coffee table book my parents had recently purchased. Eventually Tom said 'these are beautiful pictures, but there's no reality - a hawk should have blood on its talons and beak, a hare should be missing a piece of ear."

View on Amazon
Throughout the story of Aminata Diallo's movements from Africa to America, back to Africa, and finally to England horrible terrible events occur in Aminata's life, but Hill consistently sanitizes these events. It's a weakness. I'm not a fan of senseless gore, but I do believe that if you are out to portray the absolute worst that humanity does to one another, it's cowardly to then remove the stench, the mess, and the cacophony that accompanies it. It's hard to say much more without giving some spoilers, and if you haven't read the book yet, I really don't want to spoil any of what happens - it's not the events that are missing, it's the details that pull you fully into them. 

The plot of Aminata's story is much stronger. I'm not normally a plot girl - I'm much more interested in characters and mood - but in this case the plot has such strong movement that it kept me engaged despite a weakness in the writing. The variety of settings, and the accompanying new characters introduced at each setting, weave a moving story. 

Like so much of the book, the ending is tied up a little too neatly and explained too quickly. When it comes right down to it, The Book of Negroes lacked believability. I'm pretty practiced with the whole suspension-of-disbelief thing, but when I'm repeatedly having to convince myself that things could work out the way they do in this story, it pulls me out of the world Hill has created. 

The Book of Negroes is a rich, powerful book set in the very early days of slavery in America, a time that we read less about than the period closer to the American Civil War. As a 2008 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Best Book, it's clearly worth a read. But after having waited 4 years to read it, I can honestly say I was a bit disappointed. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...