The Book of Negroes, By Lawrence Hill

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The Independent Culture

What Derek Walcott characterises as the "pain of history words contain" is implicit in the title of this novel, which focuses on the pain of systems of exclusion. The book was first published in Lawrence Hill's native Canada but its identity was modified for US publication into Someone Knows My Name, substituting modern blandness for historical bluntness. The irony of that commercial intervention would not have been lost on its West African central character, Aminata Diallo. She struggles to retain her own name in the face of dismissiveness from masters, and even from the fellow slaves in South Carolina to whom she is known as Meena Dee.

The arresting title is taken from a document recording the names of 3,000 slaves who were considered loyalists by British officers in the American War of Independence. The endpapers reproduce part of it, recording as commodities those named, although they are theoretically free: "almost past his labour"; "stout fellow"; "squat wench". The novel traces in the protagonist's voice how Aminata comes to inscribe these names. She looks back from London in 1802, where she gives evidence in support of the Abolitionists' campaign, recording the stages of her enslavement and liberation.

At 11, she is abducted by slave traders from her village in Mali. The midwifery skills she learnt from her mother give her a practical and symbolic role throughout her life as she aids fellow slaves on board ship, in the plantation and in their tantalising attempts to realise promised freedoms in Nova Scotia and Freetown, Sierra Leone.

She yearns for her dead husband and son, for her lost daughter, and for her Muslim village in Mali, but eventually she acknowledges that the past is inaccessible. Her travels end not in Mali but in London. The publicity surrounding her testimony to the parliamentary committee on Abolition attracts the attention of her daughter, who was abducted as a child by a white couple in Nova Scotia. Aminata is reunited with her.

The novel wears its thorough research lightly, inhabiting the texture of the many phases of Aminata's life. After the physical degradation of the slave ship, and the brutal repression of an attempted revolt, life on the plantation seems to Aminata to be comparatively tolerable, in spite of the rape and exploitation she endures. She learns to read and write, and the slaves' network, what they call the fishnet, hauls up her beloved Chekura, who becomes her husband.

Later, the paradoxical situation of former slaves is explored; freedom was fragile and could be revoked if a former owner learnt of the ex-slave's whereabouts. Thus it was never freedom. The power of literacy is underlined for Aminata by the absence of Mali from maps; she quotes Swift on the map-makers who in their ignorance "Place elephants for want of towns".

In his attempt to rewrite slave narratives for a modern audience, Hill sacrifices psychological subtlety. Aminata is tirelessly focused, resilient and humane, unlike the traumatised Sethe of Toni Morrison's Beloved or the enigmatic protagonist of James Robertson's Joseph Knight. There is no disruption to the chronology; the reader is invited to feel with Aminata but not to piece together a fractured history.

The unsparing realism of the narrative is slightly undermined by the fairy-tale reunion with the missing daughter. It is, however, fitting that this ambitious revision of slave narratives should have won the overall Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the year that the American electorate demolished one of its most persistent categories of exclusion.

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