THE BOOK OF NEGROES by Lawrence Hill (HarperCollins), 486 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The Book of Negroes has all the elements of good historical fiction: an epic story, detail that can only come from deep research, and astute insights into human frailty.
After 11-year-old Aminata is captured and shipped off to America on a slave vessel, she works on an indigo plantation where, almost miraculously, she learns to read, is sold again to a Charles Town businessman, escapes to New York, sails to Nova Scotia - after cataloguing for the British the names of blacks sailing to Canada in what became known as The Book Of Negroes - and eventually returns to Sierra Leone.
Wherever she goes, betrayal and violence follow. Two of her children are stolen from her. Lawrence Hill vividly evokes the pain and cruelty of slavery: the specifics of the Atlantic voyage are stunning, and the process of indigo farming is described in devastating detail. What makes it all bearable is the character of Aminata - smart, kind, but not stupidly so, and fiercely committed to finding her way back home.
Hill is especially adept at conveying the psychological nuances of the experience of captivity. Aminata marvels at how black people with some personal mobility will not help her and the other yoked slaves, until she, too, turns her head when she's allowed a little more freedom in Charles Town.
There, she works for the Jewish Solomon Lindo in another scenario of intriguing complexity. Lindo is responsible for grading indigo, and participates - but not quite - in the slave trade. He insists on calling Aminata a servant, not a slave, and treats her with some sympathy.
Hill's not afraid, either, of bringing to light the way African warlords profited from the slave trade.
The novel suffers slightly from a lack of tension. We know Aminata lives to testify against slavery to the British Parliament, so the stakes never get as high as they could.
But that doesn't stop The Book Of Negroes from being an important tour de force.
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