Hearing your own name spoken in public isn't usually something significant. Yet, on a slave trading ship that transported up to a thousand Africans to North America, this act of public acknowledgement was momentous. Calling out their full names to each other was equal to "affirming their humanity". In the early mornings from the bowels of the vessel the chanting voices represented not only an important ritual of recognition and respect, it was also a way of finding out who had made it through the night. The conditions on the slave ship were abysmal: the Africans were jammed together and shackled most of the time, lacking food and water and sanitation, leading to exhaustion, infections and starvation. Many lost their minds, many more died. When the captives arrived in North America they were traded and sold like cattle and their suffering continued.
The brutality of the West African slave trade in which millions of Africans perished is well documented. However, when a knowledgeable and perceptive novelist transforms these records and the many personal accounts of cruelty and tragedy on the one hand and survival, perseverance and hope on the other into one inclusive narrative around one memorable character, the realities of the many merge into one rich and lively, heart wrenching and joyful history-based novel of exceptional beauty and power.
First we meet Aminata Diallo, the heroine of The Book of Negroes, as a frail old woman, yet with a fiery spirit and resolve that she must have had all her life. Hill's novel lets her relate her story in her own voice, direct and uncomplicated, yet subtle and insightful. Written in the best African story-telling tradition, it addresses readers directly, absorbing us completely into characters, times and places of the struggle for survival and eventual freedom.
Nurtured by loving parents in rural Mali, Aminata, unusual for the time, was educated in reading and the Qur'an by her father and learned the skill of "catching babies" from her midwife mother. Hill's familiarity with places and cultures of different peoples in West Africa gives the depiction of village life and tradition vivacity and veracity. At age eleven, during a raid on the village, the young girl is seized by African slavers and forced to join many others on the long, hard road into slavery. The memory of her parents, killed during the attack, gives her strength and guidance throughout her ordeal. Her beauty and intelligence combined with her midwifery skills, help her to stay alive during the dangerous passage to North America and for the next decades, sold as property to different more or less abuse owners.
Aminata's portrayal of survival in the midst of so many who perish, of violence and misery, but also of friendships found and lost, as well as love and family, evokes a rainbow of emotions in the reader - from despair and sadness to delight and joy. Hill's talent placing himself into the mind of his heroine is admirable. Through her he has created a captivating panoramic life story with authentic characters. Not only is the heroine of the novel a wonderfully vibrant and endearing personality, she is surrounded by many, equally believable, individuals.
Aminata's life voyage takes her through many dramatic turns of fate to freedom and back into Africa. During the American War for Independence, she finds herself on the British side and is sent, as a freed slave, to Nova Scotia with the promise for a better life. She enters her name in the historic "Book of Negroes", a British military ledger that recorded the names and details of some 3,000 black Loyalists being allowed to leave the American territory for Shelburne Harbour. Hope, however, turns into gloom and despair. The first race riots in North America break out in Shelburne. Birchtown, the black settlement, is ransacked and many inhabitants are killed. Betrayed by some, but supported by others, Aminata survives and finally fulfils her dream of returning "home" as one of the "adventurers" of the Sierra Leone resettlement program, sponsored by British abolitionists. She has come full circle but not quite in the way she had dreamt. Asked by abolitionist politicians in London to tell her story as a genuine African voice to promote their cause, Aminata takes on a final new role.
Hill's novel brings many factual historical strands together, introducing a range of contemporary personalities accurately into the storyline. Together he transforms them into a stunning and wide reaching panorama of human suffering, endurance and victory. Rich in authentic detail yet fluid in its style and tone, He has brought memorable characters to life that illustrate the strengths of the human spirit. [Friederike Knabe]