In which the third president and his forbidden lover are presented here as phantoms, there as fully fleshed people, aching always for one another.
The facts of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings are admittedly not well-known save that there was a relationship that lasted almost 40 years and that produced children, some of whom would be thought of by their contemporaries as white, others as black. O’Connor (Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, 2001, etc.) therefore has wide berth in imagining how that relationship might have been born and proceeded, though the thorniest question—is a consensual relationship possible in a milieu of slavery?—is the one most obliquely addressed, and then, as the academics say, problematically: “And so, when some half hour after Sally Hemings arrives late at the upstairs parlor, and Thomas Jefferson confesses breathlessly that he would very much like to lie with her as a man lies with his wife, and she whispers that she would like that, too….” Allowing for that possibility, and fully acknowledging the tragedy of slavery, O’Connor produces a tale that is overflowing with the range of human emotion; in its depiction of feeling, the novel is often brilliant, dense in poetry and light on unearned sentimentality. Even so, the writing is also often unnecessarily showy (“from time to time she hears a seething in the treetops, and the gravelly coughs of crows, the descending, double-voiced harmonies of veeries and the lonely cackling of the pileated woodpecker”). O’Connor proceeds by experiment, sometimes cloaking the narrative in the language of the period, sometimes seemingly channeling James Joyce; it is significant that some of the last interplay takes place among figures in a museum, as if Angels in America had gone south for the winter. The literary playfulness is admirable but overmuch; even when the story is at its most successful, somewhere between Faulkner-ian splendor and plainspoken history, one wishes for a little more economy and perhaps a little less anachronism.
Rich and ambitious; not for every taste but an interesting effort.