The Book of Negroes* by Lawrence HillThis novel is the story of Aminata, a girl in West Africa in the 1700's, who is captured and put on a slave ship bound for South Carolina. Her intelligence and usefulness to her captors (she can "catch" babies as her midwife mother did) help her survive the brutality of slavery and racism, although she suffers greatly, being separated from her children and her husband Chekura (who was one of her original captors). After years in South Carolina, Manhattan, and Nova Scotia, she eventually revisits her African homeland and even travels to London to assist the abolitionist movement.
The book's title is based on an actual document, "The Book of Negroes," in which the British Military recorded names of black people who were loyal to Britain and whom the British planned to relocate to Nova Scotia. (In the novel, Aminata is hired to record the names because of her skill in reading and writing.)
This is an excellent novel: Aminata's strength and character are compelling, and her story gives us a glimpse into the horrors of the slave trade and the resilience of individuals and communities. It covers tough subject matter but not in an overly graphic way -- something I appreciated. I'd highly recommend this novel.
*Note: it was first published in Canada; the American title is Somebody Knows My Name.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo IshiguroThis novel consists of narrator Kathy's recollections of her time in an English boarding school called Hailsham, and particularly of her relationships with two friends, Ruth and Tommy. As Kathy processes her memories, it slowly becomes clear that Hailsham is no ordinary school; it has a far more sinister purpose.
Ishiguro's best known novel, The Remains of the Day, is one of my favourite books, and this one is actually quite similar in its approach. In both books, the narrators work backward through old memories, trying to explain and understand events and their own responses to them. But here the result is far less successful. In The Remains of the Day, the butler, Mr. Stevens, was a well-defined character with a clear voice; his story played out with important world events as a backdrop; and just how self-deceived he was became clearer (and sadder) as the book progressed. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy is too bland and faceless. We have no reason to like her or hate her, trust her or distrust her. What's really going on at Hailsham takes too long to be revealed, and when it is, there just isn't enough emotional impact. I'd be interested in seeing the movie based on this novel, but I really didn't care for the book.