A richly detailed historical novel, set in a nation drifting toward civil war, that picks up where Kingman’s Not Yet Drown’d (2007) leaves off.
Grace Pollocke is a woman of parts: An artist of much accomplishment, raised in Europe and the Indies, she serves on the home front in Philadelphia while her seafaring husband wrests their fortune from the ports of Asia. Out there on the main, a young African American woman has been making her mark as well, and she returns to the New World with the promise that the silkworms in her hold can bring new wealth to a homegrown industry growing ever more reliant on slave-picked cotton. And there’s a rub, for Anibaddh Lyngdoh, it turns out, has released herself from slavery on her own recognizance—“taking of her freedom,” as one character says, “all those years ago in Scotland”—and now she’s caught up in the intricacies of the law concerning runaway slaves, since no good deed goes unpunished. Enter Grace, whose family history is bound up in Anibaddh’s in ways of which she is only dimly aware, and who turns up a few secrets as she learns more about those crossed destinies. Kingman works in the big ideas of slavery and complicity in it, skillfully depicting, for instance, the self-deceptions that afford one good Christian gentleman in Virginia biblical approval of the curious institution of human enslavement. Kingman channels the conventions of period prose into her own, so that her novel proceeds at the very leisurely, pre-television, pre-automobile pace of 19th-century storytelling. Her prose, too, is perhaps more stately than is the contemporary norm, as when she writes of Grace, “She preferred to blow out the candle when they made love, not from bashfulness, but to retire her eyes, just temporarily; to retire the greedy domineering eyes which swamped all the senses otherwise.” The reader unused to such slow and careful language may be impatient at turns, but, as Frederick Busch does in The Night Inspector, set in about the same time, Kingman handles it well and without anachronism.
Ambitious, and usually on the mark: a novel that demands the reader’s participation, and that repays it well.