An engrossing re-creation of the world of slavery, rich in social detail and psychological nuance.

SLAVES, MASTERS AND TRADERS

HISTORICAL FICTION

Human bondage connects the lives of people on three continents in this sprawling saga of trans-Atlantic enslavement.

Ackroyd’s historical novel examines slavery in 1800 from the perspectives of dozens of perpetrators and victims. One plotline involves wealthy Scottish financiers of the slavery trade, including Aaron Migu, a businessman who outfits the schooner The Spirit of the Clyde; Stanley Staymann, a young nobleman with fantasies of owning enslaved people in America; and guilt-stricken George McCallum, who uses profits from selling human beings to support an abolitionist writer. A second thread follows inhabitants of Banyan Village on the West African coast, including 5-year-old Abebi; her mother, Efia; and her father, Thimba, a superlative hunter and closeted gay man. Europe and Africa collide on the Louisiana plantation of “the chevalier,” an aging patriarch who prefers André, his enslaved son by a concubine, to his other son and heir, Jacques; the latter conspires with his mother to poison the chevalier and humble André. The three narrative threads come together when the Banyan villagers are kidnapped and shipped on the Spirit to New Orleans for auction just as Stanley arrives to take control of the chevalier’s plantation. Ackroyd’s panorama steeps readers in dense, colorful historical detail. There are a few anachronistic notions, though, as when an ethnomusicologist solicits “slave input on how to decorate the chapel using African motifs and crafts within a Christian framework.” The author pens gripping scenes of the horrors of the Middle Passage and the plantation’s cane fields, but her focus is also sociological, addressing Scotland’s class hierarchy as it confronts newfangled ideas about human rights; the intricacies of West African religion; and queasy contradictions of plantation society. Ackroyd’s prose sometimes feels didactic (“He now understands the word libertarianism….It means ‘rejecting institutional authority and replacing it with trust in individual judgment’ ”), but she often achieves lyricism that illuminates characters’ lives: “The hunters, knowing life is mere clothing for a spirit that never dies, give thanks to Gran Legbwa in a wild dance and song.”

An engrossing re-creation of the world of slavery, rich in social detail and psychological nuance.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-79608-662-1

Page Count: 546

Publisher: Xlibris Corp

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2020

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Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

LUCY BY THE SEA

Lucy Barton flees pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine with ex-husband William.

This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic: her newfound closeness with William; his unfaithfulness when they were married; their two daughters’ marital and health issues; her growing friendship with Bob Burgess; the surprise reappearance of William’s half sister, Lois; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood, troubled relations with her parents, and ongoing difficulties with her sister, Vicky. To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment.

Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-44606-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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