(Note from John: Judi is a Canadian Book Challenge participant who has not yet set up a blog for reviews. I am happily posting her review of her challenge reads here in the meantime.)
I come four years late to the party in reading The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill but find it no less compelling today than it was when first released. I am impressed with the ease in which a man writes his narrator’s voice as that of a woman. I found it believable. Even more, I am impressed with the gradual evolution of that voice as it ages with time, trials and experiences. I was particularly struck by the resonance with which the various locations are described.
Hill’s descriptions of the numerous settings became characters in themselves. Descriptions of walking in the coffle, yoked and shackled to the coast stepping in and around the discarded dead, brings the setting alive as much as the misery of the captured. The stink of the slave ships was almost palpable as I read. Further descriptions really captured my imagination, the smells and the surroundings of the indigo vats in South Carolina, and it’s counter point with the Aminata’s time in Mamed’s or Georgia’s quarters. Charles Town, complete to the details of the horse manure on the street and its overwhelming bustle and business compared to life on the plantation again, marked a different pace to Aminata’s life. Hill’s emphasis on the tactile sense of new locations really brought home the feel of colonial New York and Canvass Town or Nova Scotia and Shelbourne particularly the descriptions to keep out the cold again became characters in the narration. The Sierra Leone descriptions felt more tentative, but the her return to Bance Island and the walk to return to her African home brought the descriptions back to life for me.
I was struck by the separate nature of Aminata’s relations with white folks and the Negros through the story. While distinct – each is given a detail that brings the relationship to life for me as a reader. I particularly liked her use of memories of her parents and her childhood in Africa to ground her and give her the inner strength to make it through the next ordeal or experience. I further enjoyed Aminata’s relationship to religion throughout the book. I liked the way the experience of various religions kept reappearing - providing sips of nourishment like the broth or rum used to bring her back from the fevers and aches she lived through. I didn’t believe the re-uniting with her daughter at the end of her days in that day and age. I found it too Hollywood for my tastes. I did enjoy her comparisons of her time telling her story as a djeli in the interior of Sierra Leone with that of telling her story before the parliamentary committee.
Book of Negroes is an excellent read, one that is well worth re-reading.