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 An American plantation slave loses his gifted yet headstrong son to a harsh whipping in this powerful, compact rush of a first novel. Guyanese poet D'Aguiar (winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Guyanese National Poetry Award) uses first-person narrative, poetry, journal entries, and newspaper editorials to reveal this tale full of twisted beauty. The reader runs to each of these devices like to a new window from which to catch a glimpse of the truth. That slavery is cruel seems to be the message of the first few pages, which describe the emotional scars Whitechapel still bears many years after the death of his son. But deliberate ambiguities make this much more than a catalogue of slavery's devastations. Whitechapel is a dignified man, respected by his peers, and even by his own masters to a degree. But his dignity is that of the good slave. He accepts his lot and made the best of it. His son, Chapel, is secretly taught to read by the master's daughter, falls in love with her, dreams of running off with her, and even tries. But Chapel's father reveals his son's whereabouts to the master with the hope of clemency upon his inevitable capture. Chapel's punishment of 200 lashes kills him. Whitechapel becomes known as a Judas and, eventually, as just a silly old grandfather. But dignified acquiescence and spirited rebellion are strategies that fail blacks equally in this novel, set in the American South in the early 1800s. The plantation owner, part tortured Christian soul and part ruthless slaveholder, is a complex if still inexcusable character. So are the two generations of sadistic plantation deputies. Miscegenation and rape further muddy these waters, and inbreeding ultimately results in oedipally proportioned calamity. A small book with the emotional impact of a wide-screen blockbuster, the reasoned progress of a play, and the painful beauty of poetry.

Pub Date: Jan. 24th, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-43962-5
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1994


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