by Peg Kingman
Published by W. W. Norton & Company
1 Out of 5 Stars
There will be spoilers. Be forewarned.
If it hadn't been for the fact that I had agreed to review this book in order to receive a free copy, I would have abandoned it long ago. Alas, I am a woman of my word (at least when it comes to getting free stuff), so I trudged through all 400+ pages. I may have to alter this view and just stick to paying for the good stuff in the future.
Why did I volunteer to read this book, other than the fact that I received it ex gratia? The advertised premise intrigued me: "Why would a runaway Virginia slave—having built a rewarding life in the East Indies as a silk merchant—risk everything by returning to America in 1840, eighteen years after taking her freedom?" Hmm. I like stories about the East Indies, I like stories about the silk trade, and I like stories about repressed people making good. That was my line of thinking. However, did I get a story about the East Indies? about the silk trade? about repressed people making good? The answer to all of these is a resounding no. What did I get instead? A story about an insufferable and arrogant New England portrait painter who goes and plays Nancy Drew for 3/4 of the story at a Southern plantation. And now I shall, in list form for the sake of clarity, enumerate the many reasons why I did not like this book.
Things I Did Not Enjoy About This Book:
1) The main character of Grace MacDonald Pollocke, the fiery, short-tempered, independent red-head (what I wouldn't give, just once, to meet a literary red-head who isn't a cliché; if all fictional blondes aren't dumb, then why are all red-heads tempestuous and feisty?) who is our protagonist. Grace was born in Scotland, but raised in India and China and now lives in America. She's a cultural mutt. Grace is a self-sufficient woman, an atheist, a political astute, and an abolitionist. Grace is something of a superwoman. There's nothing she can't do. If there's a wrong being done, she'll recognize it. If there's a clue overlooked, she'll find it. If there's a flaw in a line of reasoning, she'll mend it. She is so obnoxiously perfect that I just once wanted to see her fail. But, oh, no. We can't have that. In one scene, it's even revealed that she can read a daguerreotype of a document (which appears backwards) without the aid of a mirror, all thanks to an unexplained childhood accident (seriously, that's all it says--because of a childhood accident). Why couldn't the author have just let Grace go get a friggin' mirror like everyone else?
2) The novel relies heavily upon coincidence. Everything falls into place just perfectly for perfect Grace. The narrative feels contrived and loops back around so nicely to tidy everything up that I could never give myself over to the story. I was always too aware of it as something being "made". It's akin to seeing a beautiful item from a distance, but when you get up close you can see the seams or stitches holding it together. You can see every seam and every stitch here.
3) And another thing about Grace. Oh, how she hates America. We're a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who know nothing of our founding documents or about proper grammar. Grace takes every opportunity to contemplate what a bunch of assholes we are, far inferior to every other culture that she's ever encountered. I'll admit that, yes, all of that probably was (and is) true to an extent, but all Americans (with the exception of Grace's husband and Miss Julia Grant, the beauty who would have been as ignorant as everyone else if she weren't marred by her lazy eye--being seen as undesirable has left her with oodles of time for independent thought) are portrayed as ignorant, religious zealots. But it's like having family members that you hate--you can bad mouth them, but woe upon anyone else who does. It just gets tiresome, this intolerance she has of everyone while at the same time bemoaning how intolerant Americans themselves are.
4) A lot of the book reads like a 2nd grader proudly saying "Look what I learned!" There is so much unnecessary historical detail crammed in that it bogs down the narrative. Much of it is also presented in the form of long-winded dialogue, because there's no legitimate way of making it part of the story without doing so; one character may espouse the merits of bleach for an entire page, as well as explain how the process works. It's very obvious that Kingman did her research, but what a wealth of information is included here. A historical fiction should have historical detail, yes, but it should be applied judiciously. It is, after all, still a fiction. If one wants to write about chemistry in 1800 or about the daguerreotype process, maybe one should consider writing a non-fiction book. Just saying.
5) In one scene, Grace plays a chess game against the plantation master. The master chooses the white chess pieces (which remind Grace of white supremacy) and Grace chooses the black chess pieces (which remind her of Cleopatra and the other dark races). Grace wins. Got symbolism?
6) The most fascinating character, Anibaddh Lyngdoh, is seldom on the page. This should have been her story. Anibaddh began as a slave known as "Annie Bad" for her unruly ways and was sent to Scotland with Miss Johnstone (who was sent to bring her brother-in-law's orphaned niece, Grace, back to America). When things go awry, Miss Johnstone kidnaps Grace, but it's Anibaddh who saves Grace and obtains her freedom when she runs away from her white master. Anibaddh later marries the Rajah of a West Indies nation and becomes a wealthy, educated, and independent woman. She returns to America to search for and buy the freedom of the mulatto daughter she had to leave behind. However, Anibaddh's story is subjugated to Grace's as it is Grace who is sent to the plantation to find out if Anibaddh's daughter is still there. Why this is necessary is still a mystery to me--Anibaddh seems perfectly capable of finding her daughter on her own. As she tells Grace time and again, she's not ignorant. She has already taken proper legal steps for protecting herself from re-enslavement while in America and for securing her daughter's freedom. In a novel whose main character is constantly reminding us that blacks should be equal to whites, it's rather ironic that we have to get the black woman's story through the white woman's.
7) The most intriguing part of the book is when Anibaddh's daughter is spirited away from the plantation where Grace is staying. Grace strongly suspects that Anibaddh arrived in the middle of the night and rescued her daughter (again, begging the question posed in #6--why was Grace even needed?) During the following days, the plantation crops are destroyed by a variety of caterpillars and silk worms (about which Anibaddh was an expert). Grace begins to think, while suffering qualms of loyalty for so doing, that Anibaddh unleashed a series of plagues upon the plantation as retribution for past sins. But did she? We never find out and there is the suggestion that it was all coincidence, which just takes an awesome premise and undermines it for fear that we might then see Anibaddh as a bad person. Damn it, I want to know for a fact that she went back there and wreaked havoc and I want to know how.
Things I Did Enjoy About This Book:
1) Finishing it.