I only wrote this review a few months ago, but there has been an exciting new development in the real world which Lawrence Hill drew inspiration from. The Nova Scotia government has released the real Book of Negroes as an open data set for researchers or anyone to use really. You can see a digitized record and even photos of the actual original book at the Book of Negroes online.
This has been a long time coming. When I finished The Book of Negroes last week, rushing to make it to the last sentence before my train pulled into the station I knew that I would be experiencing a book hangover the likes of which I hadn’t seen in a long time.
Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel follows Aminata Diallo from her childhood in Bayo (eventually becoming known as Sierra Leone) to South Carolina to Manhattan to Nova Scotia and eventually the colony of Freetown as a victim of the Transatlantic slave-trade. Everything awful that you can imagine, and don’t like to, about the abduction and enslavement of black Africans is a part of her story. It is not an extraordinary journey in Aminata’s world where she comes to witness the suffering and joy of both Africans and Negroes in her communities. I don’t want to reveal much more about the plot because it feels like I would be spoiling it for the next person. Too often knowing plot points in advance takes out the emotional charge.
It is storytelling at its greatest. Hill’s work is some of the best I have read in a long time as I was swept up in Aminata’s life of loss, hope, and desire for family. Her love of reading feels like a touchstone for you to follow along, as if she is reaching across time, space, and reality to say yes, I love this feeling too. She goes through no trouble of hiding her desire to become a djeli, an official storyteller for her village. And I do say “she” because, although it is Hill’s creation, Aminata is as real to me as the author himself. I bought the novel at FOLD after going to hear him talk about his newest novel The Illegal, and while I may be six years too late for Oprah’s book club, the beauty of books is that they wait for you and then come alive again.
Writing this blog has been difficult for me. I know that once I hit “publish” it means my time with Aminata will really be at an end. I swallowed the first half of the book in a day and realizing that I would quickly run out of pages to read, started stretching it out so that I could savour it as much as possible. That is, when I remembered to. Oftentimes I would come across a moment with Aminata, whether or a high or a low, and I would need to take a break. I wanted to linger in those moments of intense emotional connection. This is the kind of empathy that made me love reading.
I could not recommend The Book of Negroes more highly and I know anyone who loves storytelling will feel as passionate about it as I do. You are in good hands with Hill, as he steers you through time stopping to rest on certain moments and jumping ahead of others. I will add that at times it felt like the diction was not challenging enough, but I would choose a plainspoken masterpiece over purposefully opaque “piece of art” anyday. Good stories aren’t about complication but emotion.