A magnum opus in the making continues with this second in a trilogy (after All Souls’ Rising, 1995) portraying the late–18th-century Haitian Revolution.
This huge middle volume concentrates on the years 1794–1801, though its narrative is framed by scenes in which “liberator” Toussaint L’Ouverture, later (1802) imprisoned in France, writes his “memoir” and looks back on his years of struggle. Bell offers masterfully detailed accounts of Toussaint’s shifting allegiances (once an ally of Spain, he has since declared himself a French “Republican” inspired by that country’s Revolution) and campaigns against British occupying troops, native rebels, and French aristocratic slave-owners. The figure of the liberator is most clearly shown in the image of him held by those he commands, encounters, or engages in battle—including his conflicted subordinates Riau and Maillart, his captive Dr. Antoine Hébert (a major figure in All Souls’ Rising), and involved “colonials” of various national and ethnic origins. Given the inevitable preponderance of somewhat redundant military operations, one admires—and appreciates—the ingenuity with which Bell varies the story’s content. The pervasiveness of miscegenation, for example, is seen to threaten marriages and reputations, while ruining innocent lives and, paradoxically, offering the stubbornly decent Hébert an unexpected chance at happiness. Powerful drama emerges in the complexities that bedevil the Arnaud sugar plantation (perhaps cursed by its mistress’s vicious murder of a pregnant slave); the wretched figure of half-breed Jean Michel Fortier, who betrays his heritage by becoming a slave-catcher; and the ingenuous “Moustique” (“mosquito”), a “baby priest” transfigured by his susceptibility to both the heavy rhythms of indigenous native religions and the insistent lure of the flesh. The tale climaxes memorably, with Toussaint triumphant, having destroyed or driven away his people’s tormentors—yet doomed to be overtaken by the well-known events that Bell dutifully provides for us in an appended Chronology of Historical Events and selected Original Letters and Documents.
A most impressive fusion of history and fiction, and easily the finest work of this still-young writer’s splendid career.