July 29, 2010

Rabid Reads: "The Book of Negroes" by Lawrence Hill

Title: The Book of Negroes; internationally titled as Someone Knows My Name
Author: Lawrence Hill
Published: HarperCollins (2007)
Pages: 486
Genre: Historical; Literary
ISBN 13: 978-0-00-225507-3

While this novel would never be described as horror fiction, there is no doubt that some very horrific things happen through the course of this book. And what's worse is that much of what is depicted is based in historical fact.

Aminata Diallo, a liberated African slave, is an elderly woman readying herself to speak in front of the British Parliament on behalf of the Abolitionists at the start of the 19th century. She's to tell them her story of slavery and survival, but as she writes her story for readers, it's easy to realize that hers is a unique story and a spellbinding one.

Abducted by African slave-traders at the age of eleven, Aminata witnesses her parents' murders and her home of Bayo devastated. She's forced to trek to the west coast for months where she is placed on a boat headed for America. She is clever, resilient, and brave in the most deplorable and dehumanizing of experiences, though. Her trek across the Atlantic leads her to even worse conditions. In fact, Aminata's life is absolutely heart-wrenching in the atrocities she must endure and heartbreak she feels as those few who are close to her slip away for one reason or another. There are moments of fortuitous escape and fateful consolations, but they are eyes of hurricanes through a life of hardship beyond measure.

What initially drew me to this book was its critical acclaim among Canadian book lovers. Then, I learned about the inclusion of Nova Scotia as a setting--my home province--and its share in a shameful chapter of slavery and supposed liberation. Each setting Hill writes is vividly shared by Aminata (Meena to those who know her in later years), from the arid plains surrounding her village, Bayo, to the indigo plantation in the Carolinas, to the wrenching cold and fly-infested woods of Nova Scotia, to London, and even back to Africa when she lives in Sierra Leone for a time. The people, the places, and the language are all so genuine while reading--and Aminata's voice so enjoyable to listen to--I nearly forgot at times that this was all sprung from Hill's imagination.

I once heard this described as Forrest Gump set during the slave trade, as Aminata's lifelong journey is such a globe-trotting epic with brief encounters with historical figures and places. But there's no artificial conceit felt from the story in this book's pages. It's the character's unfathomable luck in avoiding death at every turn that provokes a difficulty in suspending disbelief.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm not often drawn towards historical fiction. And despite the girth of the story, it's easily digestible and you'll likely to want to give it a second read to take in certain scenes that resonate with you after you've finished it. Give it a chance if you ever come across it, even if it doesn't fit into your usual comfort zone of reading material. Lawrence Hill has done an admirable job worthy of the recognition it's received.

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