Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
This was a good story, but not an interesting novel—if that makes any sense. Let me explain: I find that I resent an author who gives me a novel designed primarily to raise my consciousness about a current issue or about an historical period it currently makes sense to understand. The assumption is that I’m too lazy to bother with the issue unless I’m seduced by a good story. I had an extremely bad reaction to A Thousand Splendid Suns because it seemed to me that the author started out with a list of all the bad things that could happen to a woman in Afghanistan and then constructed a story around them, with the primary goal of making readers understand the position of women in Afghanistan. In the same way this novel seems to me to be written primarily to inform readers about the hard lives of Africans who were captured and sent to work as slaves on American plantations, as well as explore the return of some freed slaves to Africa in the 19th century. The latter task was accomplished more honestly by historian Simon Shama in his book Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution as well as in other nonfiction works.
I’m discovering that I want to read novels that do something unique and excellent as novels rather than just read a good story. Books like this one are often advertised with comments like “everyone should read this book”, meaning that everyone will benefit from the lessons it teaches. I for one am more interested in fiction as art than fiction that teaches. Underscoring my perception that this book’s purpose was didactic is the fact that its name was changed for American audiences, the marketers among publishers deciding that Americans would not read something called The Book of Negroes, its original Canadian title. (The “N” word now includes the original descriptive word from which the racial slur derives.) How could anyone possibly learn a lesson from a book that uses the N word, they seem to assume.
I’m sure there’s a place for novels that teach and for the assumption that some readers will not explore a subject in any other way. But I’m not the intended reader and I find them at least mildly insulting. Particularly if the historical material plays into contemporary issues, particularly if the writer seems to imply reading this book will be “good for me”, I’m likely to rebel. On the other hand, I don’t hate all historical novels, though I frequently find them lacking in interest as novels. But again my least favorite are those historical novels that want to teach me a lesson.