Book Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

The American, Australian and New Zealand title of the book is Someone Knows My Name. I read the Dutch translation, which is called Het negerboek [The Book of Negroes].

This book had been on my wishlist for a while, and when Dutch publishers Ailantus offered me the Dutch translation in return for a review, I was very pleased (my Dutch review will be on my Dutch blog, de Boekblogger, soon).

The Book of Negroes: What It Is About

The story begins in London in 1802, when Aminata Diallo is already old, and is asked by the abolitionists to present a witness statement for the British government about slavery. For that purpose, she puts on paper the story of her life, and that is this book.

The story then goes to the beginning of Aminata’s account, when she is a girl of 11 living in a village called Bayo, in Africa. She lives with her parents and her mother teaches her everything she needs to know to become a midwife.

One day she is taken by slave traders and has to walk a long way across Africa to get to the sea, from where she is transported to America in a slave ship.

I don’t want to give away the full story, but Aminata gets into lots of different situations, endures hardship as well as good times, and eventually, before she goes to London, ends up in a very surprising location.

The Book of Negroes: What I Thought

The story was fascinating and moving and hard to put down. I read it in a few days. It’s the sort of story that you keep thinking about, even when you’re not reading.

Aminata went through a lot, and while reading the story that seemed all very natural and logical. Only later when you think about it, it seems a bit too much.

The initial part of the story (from when she is in America) reminded me a lot of another, real story, that I read last year. This was the memoir of Frederick Douglass, entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (by Frederick Douglass). Many elements in this memoir also appear in The Book of Negroes. However, Aminata’s story becomes quite different after a while.

The book is written by a man. That may or may not be the reason that Aminata, when she gets a baby, doesn’t really describe the child very much. It really struck me that she didn’t talk about his beautiful smile or his round cheeks, etc.

That was about the only thing that I could find fault with. Otherwise, the story really flows wonderfully, it was very believable, and very hard to put down.

I got this book: as a free proof copy from Ailantus Publishers

I read this in: Dutch, the original language is English; the book will be out in the Netherlands at the end of March

Number of pages: 448

First published: 2007 (in Canada)

Genre: Historical Fiction

More on this subject: Kindred by Octavia Butler, about a modern black woman who goes back in time and becomes a slave working for her own ancestor.

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About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at bookhelpline.com. In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

37 Responses to Book Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

  1. Cindy says:

    I did have a sense of deja vu reading your review, then I realised it was due to your review of Kindred.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Ha ha, that’s funny, Cindy. Still, the book is very different, although I do notice how stories about slaves (the ones I’ve read) are all about educated slaves that secretly teach others to read and write, that try to escape every chance they get and somehow stand out as “special”. On the other hand, a book about an illiterate slave that was treated badly through the whole book and never left the plantation he was on, might just not do it for the modern reader.

  2. I loved this book! It was gripping and taught me a lot of things about the slave trade that I was totally unaware of.

    I didn’t notice the lack of baby descriptions, but that is an interesting observation. Luckily that didn’t bother me at all. I have found myself recommending this book a lot in the last year. I hope you do too 🙂

    • Leeswammes says:

      You bet! I love it when I come across a good read like this. See, another book we agree on. I should really make an effort and read your 5-star books.

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill « Leeswammes' Blog | ReviewTica

  4. Uniflame says:

    I think I do want to read this! Though the book is thicker then I usually read, but it seems so interesting! 🙂

  5. Young1 says:

    This sounds like a very moving story and i think i would probably cry at some point!

    • Leeswammes says:

      Young1, there was one point in the story where I was really moved, towards the end. Otherwise, no, but I don’t cry very often over books anyway.

  6. Shan says:

    I absolutely loved this book. Having studied African history and Black American history in university, I found this book added a unique voice to all of the stories out there. I like how it went beyond the slave experience in the US and also addressed the Black experience in Canada (which doesn’t get a lot of space) as well as taking the character back to Africa. It was an easy book to get through given the subject matter. I’m such a fan of Lawrence Hill!

    • Leeswammes says:

      Good to hear that you’re a fan, Shan! I also liked the historical contexts the book was placed in, like Canada, New York, London, Africa. Although I was aware that it was a bit over the top that one person would get into all these historically important places/moments. But I learned a lot, for sure!

  7. I loved this book too, Judith, and also gave it 4 stars (I think). I can’t remember exaxtly why I dropped the start but I loved it nonetheless.

  8. Suzanne says:

    I am so glad you liked this book!
    It’s interesting you mention the author’s lack of description of the baby…. that didn’t occur to me because otherwise I thought that he did an amazing job of creating this female character.

    • Leeswammes says:

      You were on the brink of sending me the book, for which my thanks, Suzanne. I loved the book too. Will find your review of it back. Feel free to leave a link in the comments, BTW.

  9. This looks so interesting! I read so much European and Asian literature that I sometimes to read American-themed books. I’m looking forward to this. Thanks for your review!

  10. Chinoiseries says:

    I think it is a book that I would enjoy reading, because I hardly know anything of the slave trade history. How wonderful that there’s a Dutch translation available 🙂

  11. Leeswammes says:

    Daisy says: “This is undoubtedly the best book I read this year. It’s also quite possibly the best book I ever read. It’s beautifully written with an absolutely stunning storyline. ” (http://lazydaisy0413.blogspot.com/2007/12/book-of-negroes-novel-by-lawrence-hill.html)

  12. Sakura says:

    I was lucky enough to see Lawrence Hill give a talk and was impressed with him. I subsequently got the book but before I could read it, my father snatched it to read so I had to leave it at home. But he said it was an amazing and well-written book, so I’m looking forward to reading it soon:)

    • Leeswammes says:

      The Dutch Publisher is hoping to get Hill to the Netherlands soon, so it would be really nice to hear him talk. But your father!! Well. At least you can be glad he liked it. Hope you get hold of it soon.

  13. This is on my TBR list but I didn’t know much about it till now. Thanks for your great review 🙂 I would also be surprised if a woman character was not describing her child, unless the child was unwanted or there is some conflict between them. Still…seems offbeat. I agree that sometimes male writers do not characterize female characters very realistically, but then again, female authors sometimes get critized for not writing men very well, either.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Teacher/Learner, I only noticed it for that particular part of the story, otherwise, I didn’t really notice anything odd about her as a female character. The book is definitely worth reading. Move it up your TBR! 🙂

  14. Amy says:

    This is the first I have heard of this book. I am definitely intrigued and haveadded it to my tbr list. It’s terribly sad what happens to Aminata. I expect this will be an intense, powerful and inspiring story.

    Thank you for this review!

    • Leeswammes says:

      It’s a really good story, Amy. Yes, very sad things happen to Aminata and also some positive things. The worst is that at all times, her biggest wish is not just to be free, but to go back to her village in Africa. And you just know that’s not going to happen. That’s so sad.

  15. Meg says:

    Sounds like quite the compelling story. Novels detailing history are always some of the most heartbreaking — The Middle Passage by Charles Johnson also comes to mind. I read it in college and can still vividly recall many details!

    • Leeswammes says:

      I don’t know *The Middle Passage*, Meg, but I will look it up. History from the eyes of real people is often heartbreaking. We learn events in school but from books you can get the experiences of people living through those events, real or made up.

  16. Marie says:

    Very nice review. It’s such a great book. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

  17. Thanks for this review, Judith. It’s on my list too but I want the version with the original title – Book of Negros – not the US one. Not that I think the story’s different but I want it the way the author intended.
    Hate when publishers decide to change titles or cover designs.
    Anyway, glad to read your review. Reminds me I need to get a copy.
    Marcia

    • Leeswammes says:

      I also don’t like it when titles change, Marcia, especially not when the book isn’t even translated! I hope you’ll also enjoy it when you get round to reading it. Well, I’m pretty sure you will.

  18. Nadine Nys says:

    Thanks for your, as always, great review! Another one adder to the TBR-list…

  19. Darlene says:

    I got this book a while back free on iBooks and can’t wait to read it. It does sound so good. Great review!

  20. Pingback: Rebecca’s Reviews: “The Book of Negros” by Lawrence Hill « Cheryl Andrews

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