Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Author: Lawrence Hill

Published: January 18, 2007

Rating: 5 Stars

Historical Drama | 511 pages | Published by HarperCollins

If you live in the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand you may also find this book under the title Someone Knows My Name

The Book of Negroes is a grand historical drama that is written with unwavering confidence. This confidence leaps off the page and assures the reader that what he is reading is authentic and significant. I was in awe the entire time, utterly amazed by Lawrence Hill’s ability to craft such a complex narrative filled with characters who felt so real and raw. Without a doubt, this is my favorite read of 2016 so far. 

Our hero and protagonist is Aminata Diallo, whose story we follow from her childhood in the village of Bayo in 1745 and well into her autumn years in the early 1800s. The Book of Negroes is narrated entirely in Aminata’s voice, and as a result we get to know her intimately and experience the many bittersweet and heartbreaking moments of her life, of which there were countless many.

I want to warn readers that this is not a lighthearted or easy read. The story is brutally honest and authentic in its depiction of the horrors of slavery and the way in which its very existence warps and destroys people’s humanity and corrupts everything around it. But even if you prefer to read books with lighter subjects, I still  highly recommend you read this one because it’s an incredible story that explores the complexities of human experience and history.

It’s difficult to capture the essence and details of the novel in a review because it’s such a monumental story. But it is this ambitious scope that makes it special. I felt that every single page was necessary to create the living, breathing world that I got lost in every time I opened the book. I tend to prefer shorter works because I am a slow reader, but I do admit that slimmer novels may not allow themselves enough time to reach their full potential. It is true that long stories can drag and many 500 page books could be better off if shortened to 400 pages, but it’s not so with The Book of Negroes

The Book of NegroesI will now attempt to give a very brief overview of the extraordinary trajectory of Aminata Diallo’s life. 

Her childhood was spent in the village of Bayo in Africa with her father, a jeweler, and her mother, a midwife. They were a family of Muslims who lived peacefully until they were kidnapped by slavers and Aminata is shipped off to South Carolina. Alone. Much of her life is spent in the colonies as a slave suffering indignities and casual cruelty every day of her life. We see Aminata travel, not always willingly, to Georgia, Virginia, New York and eventually to Canada — specifically to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. 

It’s difficult to label Aminata as anything in particular because her life was lived in so many different and distinct places, and each one influenced her complex and multifaceted identity. But I think she would identify as an African first and Nova Scotian second.

Among a myriad other things, The Book of Negroes is the story of The Black Loyalists, a group of African and African-American refugees who joined the British colonial forces during the American Revolutionary War because they were promised their freedom if they sided with the Crown. This group of refugees left from New York to Nova Scotia and eventually to Sierra Leone. It was Aminata Diallo who helped record many of the names of these loyalists into a book that would come to be known as “The Book of Negroes.” These 500 plus pages tell that extraordinary and harrowing story.

I cannot do justice to the scope of this novel in a review — there are dozens of characters and decades of life experiences to explore in this marvelous and important piece of Canadian Literature. But I hope I’ve enticed you enough to consider reading it. If you do, it will be one of the most rewarding and illuminating reading experiences you have this year.  

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28 thoughts on “Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

  1. I don’t know why, but for some reason your like button doesn’t load. I thought it was only on your last post, but it’s the same on this one. I thought I should let you know. Maybe for other people it does show up, but in case it doesn’t, you should know why some people may not be leaving likes. x

    1. Yeah, I know. I have tried to fix it but it’s turning into a whole big deal. It’s my theme that’s causing all the problems. I have contacted the the creator of the theme, but they’re asking me to create a backup of my site and give them log-in credentials so they can run some tests.

      It apparently does work on the mobile theme of my blog but not on computers. Shrug.

      I have been generally dissatisfied with my theme, but I don’t like the basic ones and don’t want to pay for a new one yet! I feel stuck. But I’m trying not to worry about it too much. How much does a like really matter? heh
      Hopefully I can get this fixed eventually, though!

      Thanks for the support. 🙂

    1. Ok, fine. Maybe I will change it tonight or tomorrow!
      It’s so annoying knowing that the Like button has been broken all this time and I don’t know how to fix it! lol Thanks for the encouragement 🙂

  2. Yay so glad you reviwed this! I have it on my tbr and I have to admit to arely reading books over 350 pages. Because so often they ramble on and could’ve done with a stricter editor. Can you tell I’m a concise writer? So I’m very happy to hear in this case the story fits the length of the book.
    I love the sound of the protagonist and the Black loyalists, cause while it doesn’t surprise me that they were made all kinds of promises I had no idea there were Black loyalists! And I’m curious to learn more about Black Canadian identity and history!

    1. Black loyalists was the title the refugees were given, but I wouldn’t say they were really loyal to the Crown. They mostly did it out of necessity because anything was better than living in Colonial America.

      This book is massive so I can’t imagine it being told in less than 500 pages. So many essential parts would be missing if that were the case! It took me forever and a day to finish, though. So I will have to go back to short books for a little while.

  3. Yay! I’m so happy you loved this book! And you wrote such a wonderful review of it. I’m so glad, because I keep thinking I should re-read the book just so I can sing its praises on my blog. But, now it has been done so well by you that I feel better about that. 🙂
    If a book ends up surpassing this one as your favourite, then I’ll definitely need to hear about it!

    1. Thank you so much for recommending it!

      I can’t imagine this book being dethroned by another any time soon. The standard has been set so high. But I if I do come across one that even matches the quality and greatness of The Book of Negroes, then you will definitely be hearing about it.

  4. Excellent review! Sounds like the book did a number on you. Trang has this book on her shelves for a while now and I definitely plan on reading it when an opportunity to slide it into my already heavy TBR shows up! 😛 I didn’t know it was Canadian literature, but that just adds a little more #pride into the mix. 😀 😀 I’ve had my dose of slavery tale with the prequel to The Kitchen House recently, but man, I don’t think I can get tired of the themes that can be exploited with slavery. Great review once again! 😉

    – Lashaan

    1. Yes, this story truly moved and affected me.
      I hope you and Trang get around to reading it sometime this year. And as Canadians, you definitely should read it! hah :p
      Have you read any of Lawrence Hill’s work? He won Canada Reads again with The Illegal, his first victory being in 2009 with The Book of Negroes.

      1. Holy moly.. I never made the connection! He wrote The Illegal!! :O We both saw the movie though, and then later found out there was a book behind the true story. Damn, sweet. And.. as you might tell from this.. we haven’t read that too. Gosh, there’s just too many books to read!

        – Lashaan

      2. Woops, my bad, I just confused The Illegal with Unbroken (the movie directed by Angelina Jolie!) 😀 😀 But yeh, I’ve seen The Illegal everywhere and never made the connection :O Damnn!

        – Lashaan

  5. “I want to warn readers that this is not a lighthearted or easy read. The story is brutally honest and authentic in its depiction of the horrors of slavery and the way in which its very existence warps and destroys people’s humanity and corrupts everything around it.”

    Sold! This is exactly how I felt about The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Thank you for bringing this one to my attention!

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