Kirkus Star


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This third novel from Whitbread-winner D'Aguiar, as impressive as its predecessors (Dear Future, 1996; The Longest Memory, 1995), depicts a barbaric deed in history--a British slave-ship captain's decision to throw a third of his human cargo overboard because they're sick--in all its savagery and sorrow. Profit alone is what drives Captain Cunningham's decision: the slaves are worth more when they're dead and part of an insurance claim than when they're sick on the auction block. Although the members of his crew comply, they are reluctant, and only the determination of first mate Kelsal to carry out orders keeps them in line. But when Kelsal is hailed unexpectedly by name from the slave hold, after the first slaves have been cast upon the waters, he discovers a woman, Mintah, who not only speaks English well but who makes a determined appeal to his sense of humanity. A beating for her trouble fails to silence her, so Kelsal throws her into the ocean, too--although she's perfectly healthy. Mintah miraculously grabs a rope dangling from the ship and pulls herself back aboard, finding a hiding place among the ship's stores. She reveals herself to the other remaining slaves, and, as the jettisoning of live men, women, and children continues, incites them to rebel. Her rebellion, though short-lived, saps what little energy the crew has left for the job. Rather than face a mutiny led by Kelsal, Cunningham stops the killing. In the end, he gets his precious profit anyway, although he first endures an inquest. Mintah, sold as planned, eventually buys her freedom, and spends her days helping slaves north on the Underground Railroad. The storyline alone would be compelling, but with the lyrical detailing throughout of water and wood, movement and memory, this becomes a tale as beautiful in the telling as it is horrific in its reality.

Pub Date: Jan. 18th, 1999
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Ecco