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THE STONE THAT THE BUILDER REFUSED by Madison Smartt Bell Kirkus Star


by Madison Smartt Bell

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-42282-X
Publisher: Pantheon

Bell’s heroically ambitious trilogy comes to a close as he delves into the concluding months of the Haitian Revolution, begun in 1791, and the final days of that island country’s black liberator, Toussaint Louverture.

As he did in its critically praised predecessors (All Souls’ Rising, 1995; Master of the Crossroads, 2000), Bell constructs his bulky narrative as a series of juxtapositions: military maneuverings and battlefield confrontations as experienced by Toussaint’s freed black soldiers on the one hand, and, on the other, troops led by France’s Generals Le Clerc and Rochambeau, entrusted with reestablishing slavery (despite Bonaparte’s contrary promises) and ordered to capture Louverture. Soldiers’ ordeals are both contrasted with, and related to, the lives of white plantation owners and their families, and omniscient narration is frequently interrupted by the voice of former slave (now Toussaint’s trusted lieutenant) Riau, one of the trilogy’s most complex and interesting characters. Others include stoical French doctor Antoine Hebert, long sympathetic to the former slaves’ plight; his beautiful, oversexed sister Esther Tocquet and her bosom friend Isabelle Cigny (whose privileged lives become increasingly endangered); planter Michel Arnaud and his imperious wife Claudine, whose horrific crime against a slave woman will not go unpunished; and Toussaint’s sons Placide and Isaac, first seen aboard a ship en route to Sainte Domingue to join their father, where only one will declare himself Toussaint’s ally. The story’s dimensions are further multiplied by flash-forwards to Toussaint’s imprisonment at Fort de Joux in the French Alps, where he ponders his great mission’s successes and failures, as he awaits the arrival of “Baron Samedi,” the Haitian avatar of death. At the very least, Bell’s willed masterpiece is a brilliant synthesis of historical fact and a consistently absorbing story. Readers who persevere through the trilogy’s almost 2,000 pages will be amply rewarded.

This rich work—in all its (very real) glories, despite its (inevitable) longueurs—is the logical culmination of an obsession with racial issues that has consistently dominated Bell’s fiction. As such, it merits the utmost attention and respect.