Review 1607: Classic Club Spin Result! Oroonoko

Oroonoko was the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

There are a few issues with Oroonoko, written in 1688, that might make it difficult for modern audiences. One is its acceptance of slavery (although the novel is viewed as an anti-slavery work), which in the 17th century was common. The other is its graphic violence, albeit off-stage, that has caused it to vary in popularity over time. (Apparently, even the publishers of the edition I read disagree about that, because the introduction says it was Behn’s most popular work, while the cover says it was not popular because of its violence.)

Oroonoko has been considered a novella rather than a biography, because there is no proof that such a man as Oroonoko existed. However, Behn writes the story in first person as herself, and she is known to have traveled to Suriname, where it is set, shortly before the country was ceded to the Dutch. So, you have to wonder.

Oroonoko is the prince of Coramantien, an area of present-day Ghana, the grandson of the king and a great warrior. He falls in love with a beautiful girl named Imoinda, and she becomes his betrothed. However, his grandfather sends her the veil, which means she is to join his harem, even though because of her betrothal that is a break in custom. Oroonoko must accept this or die, so he accepts it with the thought that the king cannot live long. However, the king regrets his actions and sees no way to recover the situation except if Imoinda was dead. He is unable to have her killed, though, so he sells her into slavery and tells Oroonoko she is dead.

Next, an English slave trader whom Oroonoko has sold slaves to invites him for a party. When he and his men have passed out from drink, the trader enslaves them and puts them on a ship for Suriname. It is when Oroonoko arrives there that he meets Behn and her traveling companions and they learn his tale and witness the rest of the action.

Oroonoko might be the first anti-slavery novel, although it is subtle about it, showing some of its abuses while not really commenting on the institution. Behn reveals the dastardly behavior of a series of Europeans, either slavers or owners, and contrasts it with the image she builds up of a handsome, brave, forthright black hero and his beautiful and virtuous lady. The novel was interesting, but I found what happened to Imoinda through Oroonoko’s hands distressing and the reflection of a type of thinking I did not find admirable—and the ending was just plain gruesome.

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Review 1489: The Water Dancer

Hiram Walker is a slave on a Virginia plantation with a photographic memory and a talent for mimicry. As a boy, he attracts the attention of the master, who is also his father. His father has Hiram educated for a year, and the naïve boy imagines he might take an important place on the plantation, but the master’s intention is simply to have Hiram keep his heir, Maynard, out of trouble.

One day on the way back from town, the carriage, being driven recklessly by Maynard, goes into the river. Maynard is drowned, and Hiram wakes up in a field far away from the river. Hiram begins to fear he’ll be sold off to Maynard’s fiancée, Corinne. So, he plots an escape for himself and his master’s brother’s concubine, Sophia.

The Water Dancer has aspirations to literature, and that was one of my problems with it. Occasionally high-flown prose runs from the lyrical to the clichéd. Some of the conversations are absurdly unlikely. One of Coates’s affectations was for the slaves to call themselves the Tasked, which seems to be hardly authentic; in any case, I could find no other such use of the word.

Sometimes, the action slows almost to a halt. For example, Hiram falls into the water on page one and doesn’t come out until about page 100, during which Coates provides background. I’ve run into approaches like this before lately, and all I can say is that something like this that works in a movie doesn’t translate well to fiction, where you are reading for hours over a time that is supposed to be a few minutes.

Coates’s goal here isn’t to tell about the cruelties of slavery so much as to put his tale on a higher plane. He also introduces an element of speculative fiction.

I struggled with this book for about a week and decided to quit halfway through. At that point it was becoming clear that Sophia would have a bigger role, but her character was so little defined that I felt she was almost a MacGuffin. I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with Coates.

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Review 1471: Homegoing

Writers seem to be experimenting with the form of the novel these days, not always successfully. Yaa Gyasi uses the form of linked short stories to good effect, however.

In paired stories, the novel follows two half sisters and their descendants through 300 years of history. In 18th century Gold Coast, Effia is being courted by the son of a king, but her mother, Baaba, tells her to hide the fact that she has reached womanhood. Her suitor eventually marries someone else, and Effia is married to a white man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is where slaves are kept before being shipped to the colonies.

Esi is the daughter of Big Man and Maame, a former slave to Effia’s family. In her attempts to befriend Abronoma, her family’s slave, she sends a message to Abronoma’s family to tell them where she is. Thus, she herself becomes a slave when her slave’s family attacks and captures her village.

The novel checks in with each of eight characters of the girls’ descendants, sometimes telling the entire stories of characters’ lives, other times dealing with significant moments. Both families are affected by this great evil in their lives, slavery and its aftereffects. This structure allows Gyasi to explore some of the key events in the histories of Ghana and the United States.

At first, I thought I might get frustrated with the format, because I often want more from short stories. But because the stories are about two families, some of the characters are present in more than one, and you can at least find out what happened to them. Many of the stories are grim, but the novel ends hopefully. Gyasi’s voice is a fresh one, and I found this novel captivating.

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Review 1465: Sugar Money

Best of Ten!
In 1765 Martinique, Father Cléophas sends two of the monks’ slaves, Emile and Lucien, on an astoundingly ill-advised mission to Grenada. The two brothers are to gather the monks’ hospital and field slaves from the island, which has been taken by the British, and bring them to Martinique. Cléophas presents them with a notarized document and tries to convince them that the British have agreed to this, but in the next breath, he tells them to do it secretly, on Christmas Day, when the British will be drunk.

Emile, who is 28, tries to convince Cléophas to leave Lucien, who is 13, home, but Cléophas insists that Lucien go, because he can speak English. Then he gives them a package of medicinal herbs to convey to a doctor, their excuse for going to the island.

The slaves have no choice but to do as they are bidden. Lucien relates this story in his quirky mix of English, French, and patois. In the guise of an adventure, with humor and a likable, inimitable narrator, Jane Harris tells us the horrifying details of life in the 18th century Caribbean.

This is an excellent novel that I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. I have recently read more than one novel set on a Caribbean sugar plantation, but this one seems the most authentic.

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Review 1403: Washington Black

Best of Ten!
Washington Black is a twelve-year-old field slave on the Barbados plantation of Faith in 1830 when a new master arrives. Masters are to be feared, but it soon becomes clear that the new master is cruel and thinks nothing of the death of a slave.

Washington and his protector, the old woman named Kit, are alarmed when one evening they are summoned to the master’s house. They are expected to wait table while the master entertains his brother, Christopher, although they have no training. After the dinner, the brother asks for Washington to wait on him personally.

Christopher, or Titch, as he asks to be called, is a man with a scientific mind. He is working on an airship he calls Cloud Cutter, which he plans to launch from a mountain at the top of the plantation. Once Titch sees how exactly Washington draws, he begins to involve him in his experiments.

The master is away when Titch’s cousin Philip arrives. He brings some news that disturbs the plans of both Titch and the master. Then a terrible event occurs. Because Washington is present for it, he knows it means his death. Titch knows it, too, and the two flee the plantation in the Cloud Cutter.

Washington’s life becomes one of adventure overshadowed by fear. Although during the novel he travels to the Arctic, Upper Canada, England, and eventually Morocco, for years he fears being recaptured.

This novel is part adventure story, but it has the more serious aim of exploring the bonds between the exploiter and the exploited. Titch is a mystery to Wash, a seemingly compassionate man who yet abandons him in the Arctic. For years, Wash believes him to be dead, but then he hears he is alive. This sends him on more journeys to try to find and understand his mentor.

I thought this novel was fascinating, especially the descriptions of sea creatures when Wash begins studying them in Upper Canada. Later on, he begins to build the world’s first public aquarium.

I liked Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, but I was really caught up in the story of Wash’s life. This novel applies to my Man Booker Prize project, but I would have read it anyway.

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Review 1322: Golden Hill

Cover for Golden HillBest of Ten!
It is 1746 when a mysterious young man arrives in New York and immediately goes to Lovell & Company on Golden Hill. He presents a bill for a thousand pounds, an enormous amount of money, from a trading partner of Lovell. Although the bill looks legitimate, Lovell insists on sending back to London for confirmation of the bill’s legitimacy before paying out.

Perhaps Lovell would have felt more comfortable if Richard Smith was more forthcoming, but Smith has nothing to say about who he is or what he plans to do with the money. He is, in fact, dissembling in some way, but we don’t learn how for some time.

These are uneasy days in the colonies. The governor is not popular, and he is constantly undercut by Mr. De Lancey, who has better connections. Most of the New Yorkers are very touchy about anything that seems to threaten their liberty. Smith himself is the type of person who rubs others in the wrong way. He is also hapless. Within no time, he has been robbed of almost all his money and has to subsist on a few guineas until the bill clears. At the same time, he must present a facade of wealth to all the curious New Yorkers.

On Guy Fawkes Day, he accidentally offends a gang of laborers and is rescued by the governor’s secretary, Septimus Oakeshott. They begin an uncomfortable friendship.

Finally, Smith has the misfortune to fall in love with Tabitha Lovell, a quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who seems to hate him.

The novel is written in a humorous, sprightly style, and we don’t find out who the narrator is until the last chapter. We end up with a picaresque adventure story that has a hidden purpose, and hints of more important issues.

Golden Hill is an excellent historical novel that I read for my Walter Scott prize project. It depicts the beginnings of English New York with its solid Dutch background, hints of the coming revolution, and looks at the issue of slavery. It is entirely unpredictable and highly enjoyable.

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Day 1132: The Quality of Mercy

Cover for The Quality of MercyThe Quality of Mercy was another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. It concerns issues of slavery that were coming to the fore in 18th century England.

I did not become that involved with this novel, but that was not necessarily because of the novel itself. I didn’t realize until I started reading it that this novel was a sequel to Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which I had not read. After reading four C. J. Sansom mysteries just so that I could read Heartstone in context, I decided not to go back and read Sacred Hunger first, reasoning that a book should be able to stand on its own. It was fairly easy to figure out what had happened in that novel, but perhaps I missed some background for the characters that would have added to the enjoyment of this one.

Much of The Quality of Mercy has to do with action that took place in Sacred Hunger, and to write this review, I am forced into spoilers for the previous novel. A ship filled with slaves was on its way to the Caribbean when the captain decided to throw some sick slaves overboard. A lawsuit in the current novel contends that the aim was to be able to claim insurance on the slaves that would not apply if they died onboard. The reason given for “jettisoning the cargo” was that the ship was running out of water, but the insurance company’s lawyers have witnesses who say that wasn’t true. In any case, the slaves rose up, assisted by some of the sailors, and took over the ship. The slaves and sailors landed in Florida, where they lived together for 12 years.

But Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, made a vow to find these men after his father committed suicide because the incident ruined him. In Sacred Hunger he was successful in finding the men, and now the sailors involved are on trial for mutiny.

Frederick Ashton is a dedicated abolitionist who is attempting to defend the sailors in order to further the abolitionist cause. Both he and Kemp are zealots in their own ways. Ashton believes that nothing is more important that his cause and makes a request of his sister, Jane, that she considers unworthy of him when he realizes Kemp is attracted to her. Kemp is the type of person who always believes that what he wants is right. He was unstoppable in hunting down the sailors, who included his own cousin.

In the meantime, Sullivan, one of the sailors and an Irish fiddler, was able to walk out of jail when he substituted for a hired fiddler at a party in the jail. Trusting and feckless, he has vowed to go to Durham to see the family of one of his shipmates, who died in Florida. He does not know that Kemp is also on his way to Durham to examine the mine where his shipmate’s family is employed.

Although the novel is certainly well written and interesting, something held me back from being totally involved in the story. Maybe I would have been more interested if I had read the first book, but I’m not sure. I did not like either Kemp or Ashton, although Kemp undergoes some softening during this novel.

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Day 1080: Moonglow

Cover for MoonglowMichael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.

Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.

As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.

I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.

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Day 999: Beloved

Cover for BelovedOn some occasions after reading a novel, I find my thoughts about it are not clear. Did I enjoy it? Did I completely understand it? Did I think it was powerful or overpowering? This doesn’t happen very often, but these are my thoughts after reading Beloved.

The novel, when looked at straightforwardly, is a ghost story. Sethe escaped from slavery with her children, although the plan went wrong. Most of the other escaping slaves were killed or captured, including her husband, and Sethe had to come later, giving birth to her daughter Denver on the way.

These events happened 16 years ago, but shortly after Sethe made it across the Ohio River, Schoolteacher, the despotic overseer, came after her. To keep her children from being dragged back into slavery, Sethe decided to kill them. She was stopped, but not before she slit the throat of her daughter, Beloved. (Her name isn’t really Beloved, but that’s what’s on her tombstone; we don’t know her name.)

Sixteen years later, Sethe’s house in Cincinnati, referred to as 124, is haunted. Sethe lives there with Denver, her mother-in-law having died and her sons having left. Denver is a sulky, needy young woman who craves her mother’s attention, but that is all for the ghost of her baby.

The action begins when Paul D. arrives. Paul D. had been one of the young male slaves at Sweet Home, where Sethe was a slave. He has been wandering since the war. When he realizes the house is haunted, he drives the ghost out and lives with Sethe as her lover.

But Beloved comes back, now embodied as a girl the age she would have been if she’d lived. Denver and then Sethe become enslaved to her.

But is Beloved a ghost or just a young girl damaged by slavery? Someone in the text makes a reference to a lost girl enslaved since a child, and I think that’s who Beloved is meant to be. Denver and Sethe have just mistaken her from their own needs. There is only one chapter where we see things from Beloved’s point of view, and it is incoherent.

That is what I think, but I was confused because everyone else seems to take the novel as a straight ghost story and of course, an indictment of slavery. I finally ran across a reference to an article by an academic who believes the same thing, but I never found the original paper.

In any case, Beloved is an unusual work. It uses an unusual combination of storytelling techniques, some of which I enjoyed and some I did not. It is powerful, depicting emotions and events that we can barely comprehend. Did I like it? I don’t know. Does it make me think? Yes. Do I understand it? Not completely.

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Day 919: The Cellar

Cover for The CellarI have been reading and enjoying Minette Walters’ chilling thrillers and mysteries for years, ever since her spectacularly creepy novel, The Ice House. But The Cellar is something else again. Walters’ vision has become even darker with this short novel, about what happens when a person is abused for too long.

The Songolis are an African family living in England. One day their youngest son Abiola disappears, and it takes a while before the family notifies the police. This time is taken up with trying to hide evidence that 15-year-old Muna is a slave who sleeps in the cellar. The family presents Muna to the police as their daughter and tell them she has brain damage and cannot speak English.

Muna does speak English, though. She has learned it through watching television and listening to Abiola’s lessons with his English tutor. Her situation improves as the investigation goes on, because the Songolis are afraid to abuse her when a police officer may come to the door at any time. It is quite obvious that the police suspect the father, Ebuka, but for some time we do not learn what happened to Abiola.

We do slowly learn that Muna was removed from an orphanage in Africa under false pretences when she was eight. Yetunde Songoli arrived with forged papers showing that she was Muna’s aunt. Ever since then, Muna has worked and slaved for the family. Physically abused by Yetunde and Abiola and sexually abused by Ebuka, she suspects she will soon also be sexually abused by the older son Olubayo. But with this dischord of Abiola’s disappearance already in their midst, Muna finds ways to create uncertainty within the family and drive them apart.

This novel is a difficult one to read. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but I can’t imagine a novel being much darker. I actually have to recommend one of Walters’ earlier novels if you haven’t read her yet. The Ice House is an excellent start.

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