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julianmeynell

Julian Meynell's Books

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Review

The Book of Negroes - Lawrence Hill

The Book of Negroes is known outside of Canada as Someone Knows My Name.

 

This book won several awards and was a best seller.  Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment.  The book is the story of a slave in the 18th century, who lives a long and eventful life.  The book is well researched, in a way.  The facts of the history are accurate, except where somethings have been changed for literary effect.  However, one can hardly believe that Hill read anything from the 18th century, although he apparently did.  Like me Hill lives in 21st century Ontario, and his characters all speak as if they lived in 21st century Ontario also.  No one ever speaks as if they originated in their time and place, and Hill uses ahistorical words and sentence constructions repeatedly.  This would not be such a big problem if it was not written in the first person, by the former slave.  Every page has something cringe worthy on it.  Hill got a whole bunch of historical advice, and I have no idea why his sentences were not shot down.

 

Beyond that, a novel of the slave trade must to be worthwhile have intrinsic artistry, which this novel does not or psychological insight as that is something better provided by novels than nonfiction.  Hill has no psychological insight.  None of the characters, all of whom are invested somehow in the experience of slavery, act remotely like real people did back then.  Instead, they all act like 21st century Canadians.  The slavers are shameable about their racism.  Everyone deep down knows that blacks are equal, whereas virtually no one, including the blacks knew this in the 18th century which is part of the tragedy of slavery.  The psychological effects of suffering are not here very much and where they are they are badly represented.  The brain washing and self delusion needed for the slave trade are also not here at all.  Hill does not fundamentally understand how oppression actually works.

 

The book is written to make smug upper middle class liberals feel good about itself.  For those who know Canada, it is aimed squarely at the CBC Radio 1 crowd, who are exactly the group who have embraced it.  The heroine is meant to go on a journey, but does not and intuitively has bought into the values of a 21st century Ontarian liberal.  I suppose I'm meant to find her an inspiring example, but I found her a mixture of a cipher and someone who was irritatingly smug.  Far too smug, to have been treated as well as she was.

 

It is also, really not that well written.  Its not offensive.  But it is hardly challenging.  The lack of challenge of the books style matches the lack of challenge of the psychology and the characterization.  My copy in addition to all its awards, had a quote from the Globe and Mail heralding it as a masterpiece, which I fear was not taken out of context.

 

I'm sure it will be forgotten about when the next user friendly slave narrative comes out.

 

Disappointing.