This is a "slave narrative" deeply rooted in fact but skillfully cultivated into fiction. Lawrence Hill is not an 18th-century survivor of the Middle Passage but a 21st-century mixed-race Canadian whose previous, non-fiction works have broached the experience of "being black and white" in his homeland, and, daringly, of "ordinary" soldiers who deserted in the Iraq war.
Through imagined dialogue rather than a first-person account, in The Book of Negroes Hill tells the epic tale of Aminata Diallo, an 11-year-old girl snatched from her Malian village in 1775 and shipped to Carolina, where she endures the horrors of rape and hard labour on an indigo plantation. Only when she becomes a book-keeper for another owner does her lot improve.
Escape and a return to her pays natal are never far from her thoughts, though. So she absconds in New York, holes up in the black ghetto, Canvas Town, and sails to Nova Scotia with other slaves offered a safe haven by the King of England for siding with the British during the War of Independence.
Having lost parents, husband and a child, this leg of Aminata's journey apparently offers less harrowing prospects. Yet things become more bitter and twisted, for the supposed enfranchisement of the Black Loyalists is undermined by the prejudice and brutality of white settlers. The former slaves are "free" to be murdered in broad daylight. Solace comes in the shape of an opportunity to return to Africa as part of the first "colony" of repatriated blacks in Sierra Leone, but this refuge is blighted by the ignominy of having to watch the local slave traders parade distraught human cargo in front of their very eyes.
Engrossing though these events are from a historical perspective, they are lent great dramatic and human substance by Hill's fine characterisation. Aminata is not just a triumph of willpower but of education. She learns to read. She learns to write. She masters the master's tongue. Her oratory and literary skills save her life, and she fulfils her destiny as a djeli, a storyteller, when she completes her autobiography – which is keenly sought by the Abolitionist movement for propaganda purposes – during her final days in London.
Hill falls down slightly here, for Aminata's acceptance that she will never see her heartland again, after yet another betrayal, is a touch underwritten, given the enormous psychological and emotional space granted to the return. The sense of rupture and disorientation isn't quite sharp enough.
Yet The Book of Negroes is a colossal achievement for the ingenuity with which fact and fiction intermingle without any glib concessions to melodrama. The evils of the slave trade are the bare bones of this book but the fortitude and sheer strength of spirit of the protagonist provide the real flesh, resulting in a heartrending yet inspiring story.