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Merle

Merle

Someone Knows My Name: A Novel - Lawrence Hill Someone Knows My Name is a compelling read, and covers some historical events I hadn't heard about before. The characterization, though, leaves something to be desired.

This book is the fictionalized memoir of Aminata Diallo, who's kidnapped from her Malian village at 11 by slavers. It's interspersed with brief chapters from her "current" life, as an abolitionist in London in the early 1800s, so little of what happens is really a surprise, but it's well-written enough that that makes little difference. And Aminata has an interesting life. The book starts with her childhood, striking a good balance between showing that it was a good one and not overidealizing. I especially liked that she comes from a Muslim family: this might be a remote village, but they're not so primitive and cut off from the world as people might think. Then there's the slave-novel section; it certainly has its ugly parts, but isn't viscerally awful like some other slave novels (Aminata gets comparatively lucky). Then Aminata finally becomes free, and you think: wait a minute, already? Don't slave novels end happily as soon as the protagonist makes it to New York City or Canada?

Not this one. The book goes into some really interesting history dealing with the Black Loyalists and their migrations to Nova Scotia (which didn't work out all that well) and later Sierra Leone (which wasn't a whole lot better). I was fascinated by these sections because I'd never heard of any of this before. And this is where the book's themes really come together: rather than dwelling further on the horrors of slavery, Hill shows us the long-term effects of the slave trade on people who can never really go back home. The best they can do is to get by, and even that isn't easy.

Where the novel doesn't do as well is with the individual characters. Aminata's a survivor, but after spending 470 pages with her I can't say much about her beyond that. Some of the secondary characters (and everybody else in this book is secondary; perhaps part of the problem is that the entire supporting cast changes whenever Aminata moves on) are interesting: particularly so the ones who have moral qualms with slavery, but practice it anyway, like Solomon Lindo. But for the most part there isn't much depth in the supporting cast either. And Aminata's love life is a definite low point: she loses her husband for decades at a time, and yet it never once occurs to her that she might move on or be attracted to anyone else, and then when he returns their relationship is still perfect. The fairytale aspect just doesn't work with the rest of the book.

Finally, the novel is in the first person. Hill does a credible job of writing as a woman; what isn't so credible is that Aminata is a product of the 18th century. Her voice is thoroughly modern, both in its style and its substance. Would an elderly woman living in London in 1802 really have described sex with her husband in such intimate detail? Maybe someone with Aminata's cultural background would, but if so, the author failed to bring any of that to light. Nor is there anything else in Aminata's worldview that grounds her in the 18th century; she could have walked straight out of the 21st.

I did enjoy this book, and it tells a good story. Even so, I can't quite bring myself to give it 4 stars.