Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes

Lawrence Hill and his The Book of Negroes got me through today's Air Canada marathon (not the expected Sydney-Toronto-Victoria, oh no, but with the spontaneous addition of Vancouver, plus eleven miles of intergate promenade). A very late night and a deucedly early morning combined to make sleep the only option for the first leg of travel, but somehow I swept through this fat novel in the six hours between Toronto and Vancouver, reading the closing acknowledgements section just before the wheels bumped down. At the moment, I remain in the YVR airport, so not, perhaps, in the fittest condition for reviewing books, and yet unlikely to recover rapidly or to retain present familarity, I nevertheless etc.:

In The Book of Negroes, Hill has written a remarkable work of historical fiction. Impeccably researched, I gather, though stretched for fictional purposes, as Hill notes in the afterword, this novel just has to be one of the most powerfully reimagined slave narratives yet written. It's not a genre I'm overly familiar with, and given the pace of reading I'm perhaps more open than usual to persuasion otherwise, but to me it seems that it's highly deserving of much of the praise that's been heaped upon it.

Having said that, I would simply note that much of the said praise singles out Hill's historical research and the vibrancy of his narrator, Aminata Diallo, but is generally silent on other elements of the novel. The Calgary Herald, for example, gets blurbed comparing Diallo to both the titular Anna Karenina and Hagar Shipley (from, of course, the Canadian classic Two Solitudes*), and I think I'm okay with that as far as the three characters go -- very high praise indeed, certainly, but note that the Herald doesn't compare The Book of Negroes to either Anna Karenina or The Stone Angel. Just to their main characters, and that's a different thing altogether, though still worth a blurb.

I will admit that more of my time and energy ought to have been lavished upon this impressively researched and seamlessly written novel, so I'm confident that I've missed plenty of elements that'd make it more valuable than it currently appears to my sleep-starved brain. The challenge for me in reading historical first-person fiction is in figuring out where the boundary lies between accomplished ventriloquism, and great novel-writing. My prediction is that The Book of Negroes will become and remain a frequent Christmas gift, but that as time goes on, we'll develop a secret regret that we didn't get a somewhat more novelistic treatment of a character as gripping as Aminata Diallo from a writer as talented as Lawrence Hill. Which isn't to day that it shouldn't be put in the hands of as many readers as might possibly want to read it.

Summation: a hell of a story about enormously important things, exceedingly well told through the vehicle of a terrific narrator and main character, though not necessarily the novel some of its fans think it is.

* Ha ha. Ha?


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