BOOK REVIEW / Slaves to their Pennsylvania stations: 'Free' - Marsha Hunt: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
MARSHA HUNT does a mean line in bigots. And she throws in a good measure of buffoonery as well. Readers are invited to laugh at her monsters - but they do so in discomfort.

Chief villain in her new novel has got to be the grey-eyed Dutchman we meet in pre-emancipation flashback, who makes a sex slave of his own black mammy, then 28 years later impregnates their grey-eyed daughter with two more children. The infuriated mammy, Em, nearly drowns these two like kittens, but they manage to grow up to become principal characters in the novel's 1913 present.

The narrative turf here is fresh. Germantown, Pennsylvania is an unusual mix of long-established German settlers, Quakers, industrial and professional big money-makers and a black population which, 50 years after slavery has been abolished, is still living in servitude. The limelight falls on one of the Dutchman's grey-eyed progeny (far too much of this grey-eyed business), Theodore 'Teenotchy' Simms. His childhood memories of his raped and murdered mother are released each time he opens a jar of table wax in the Quaker household where he has found a sort of servile refuge. Polish or perish.

Teenotchy is about to become the heart-throb of a 19-year-old English viscount called Alexander, whose grandmother read him Uncle Tom's Cabin at the age of eight. Alexander thinks Teenotchy is scrumptious and that his friends (an ancient poetry- writing crone, a half-wit Indian and a tongueless woodchopper) are just too fascinating. Alexander's affections make everyone uneasy - including the reader and Teenotchy - masked though they necessarily are. (There was not much of an inter-racial gay scene in 1913 Pennsylvania.) Should he take Teenotchy back to England? Shower him with thoroughbreds?

Entertainment is a high priority with Hunt. The pages fly by; no chapter ends without a dangling tease; scenes are set with flair (a riotous horse-race; the hypocrisies of a lavish dinner party with servants dancing attendance); and characters come complete with eye- popping life histories.

The trouble is that these life histories are made to pass for character. Although all the younger black women share an iron resolve never to wash other people's floors, everyone is what past events and cruelties have made them. This is not only deeply pessimistic, it's also unconvincing: Teenotchy isn't fleshed out enough to enact the tragedy the author has waiting for him. Still, Marsha Hunt conveys the impression that she is enjoying every minute. This is avid yarn-spinning of a very high order.