Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

I’m a bit behind on reading this book that received so much praise when it came out in 2007. I’m sure you can relate. A book (or usually it’s a movie) comes out and people rave about it all the time. “You haven’t read The Book of Negroes? Well you just have to. It’s so moving and life changing and…” You instantly feel like you’re missing out, but you’re annoyed that your friend who rarely reads is admonishing you for not reading Lawrence Hill’s book yet. You’re all, “Sorry, I’m too busy reading Tess of the d’Ubervilles” (you’re totally not).

It’s just that feeling of missing out that’s then instantly overwhelmed by the uppity disdain of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ is really hard to shake. I think that comes from thinking that I’ve got good taste (I know) and that if everyone is reading it, then I clearly shouldn’t bother. What? Where does this pretentious attitude come from? I felt this way with The Help by Katheryn Stockett. I wondered whether people were just reading it for the sake of making a statement about certain issues, rather than the book itself. (Note: I have now watched The Help while on my flight home from Paris, still have to read it, and I clearly cried my face off. #embarrasingpubliccry.)

I didn’t cry that hard in The Book of Negroes, but there were tears shed. I read this book a while ago, in all honesty, and I’ve found it somewhat difficult to write about. I read it shortly after I’d read the five books for this year’s Canada Reads True Stories and I think I was so used to reading non-fiction that I was a bit unsettled when reading this historical fiction.

This novel chronicles one voice representing what were thousands in history who were ripped away from Africa and brought to South Carolina in the slave trade of the mid-1700s. Aminata Diallo narrates this story from her position in front of the abolitionists in the early(ish) 1800s as she brings to light some of the dark truths of slavery. From Africa, to South Carolina; Halifax to Africa and finally to England; this is the story of her journey to stay alive, keep her identity and foster love in what family she has.

When I say I was unsettled by reading this book, I mean that I found some of the events so horrifying that I wondered at times whether they weren’t embellished. Now, I’ll nip this in the bud by saying that I know they’re not. Disgusting, horrible acts took place during the time of slavery where most likely, animals were treated better than humans so I’m not being naive. I just found that when the ‘non-fiction’ stamp isn’t on a book, it can sometimes be distracting as a reader to constantly wonder whether something actually happened, or whether it’s a convenient plot twist used by the author.

These feelings made me very aware of the plot in this book. It was one of the rare times that I didn’t lose myself in the story as I was very aware that I was reading Hill’s work of fiction. It’s hard to explain, but I felt as though Hill worked the plot a bit unrealistically for Aminata as she frequently had important people from her past turn up again and again in the most unlikely of circumstances. Yes, maybe this happened more often than I think back in the day, but considering how hard it is to get in touch with some of my friends through the plethora of social media applications, I find it close to impossible to believe that these people would have been able to track each other down. I suppose that in those days the power of spoken word and telling stories was invaluable, so it shouldn’t be hard to believe that names would be passed along in the hopes of reuniting loved ones.

Having said those somewhat negative things, I did really enjoy this book. It was a sweeping historical epic that took the reader all around the world, and it was clearly very well researched. In my head, I can still see the many places Aminata lived quite clearly; impressive considering I read it a few months ago! I also learned a lot about the living conditions in certain places during that time, like how recently freed slaves were living in ‘shanty town’ in make-shift shacks in Halifax. I also liked being able to see scenes from Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray – it’s the tapestry of Canadian Literature I’ve been reading this past year all coming together and adding to each new story about the history of our great country.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Kaley says:

    I haven't read this one yet either and I'm not sure if I'll ever get around to it. It's one of those that I “should” read but I'm not sure if I would enjoy it. I'll keep thinking about it as I have heard so many good things about it. I was a little hesitant on The Help as well. I didn't read it at first in part because I was so busy with school and then because I didn't think I'd find it interesting. How wrong I was! I really enjoyed it and I think you will too!

  2. Steph says:

    I also haven't yet read it. But in my good taste (ha) when I bought it, I made sure it was the illustrated hardcover edition.

    I wanted to read it after reading The Help, which I also felt was beneath me, by the way, since everyone else was slavering over it, and which I also totally loved. But things keep coming up. I'll read it, I will. But I feel the call to read the ones I've been sent first. Which means Hill has to wait another few years, so I may change my mind. 🙂

  3. Chelene says:

    I am going to start reading this book this weekend. It's funny, I've had the book in my hands just about every other day ( I work in a library) and I keep saying I want to read this but I just place it in its spot on the shelf. I hope to get a signed copy in October if I catch one of the events Hill's supposed to be moderating at the Vancouver writers fest called Uprooted. Or hopefully at one of his whistler events.

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