Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub. Date: May 21, 2019
This novel is good, unusual, but not unusually good, although it could have been. There may be too much going on, which I will get to, but at its center is a gripping narrative about a female servant in England who was a former Jamaican slave. In 1826, she is accused of the brutal double murder of her employer and his wife, George and Marguerite Benham. The first half of the tale is written so well. We meet Frannie in jail writing her life’s story. She was born on a West Indian plantation whose master, John Langton, is a sadist. (Spoiler: She is her master’s bastard daughter). As a child, she was taught to read and write. She grows to be highly self-educated.
The reason for her literacy was for her to participate in and take notes on her master’s pseudoscience experiments. Langton is studying racial differences. He is trying to prove that blacks are not human. He uses skulls, blood, and skin samples from dead as well as live slaves. The author chooses to leave out, what could be barbaric descriptions. You will read about a baby being used as a research subject. Rather than focusing on what is being done to the infant, Collins writes about the child’s desperate mother scratching on the outside of the locked room. Or, that Frannie knows that the woman will be sold in the near future. Less gore can equal more horror. In the endnotes, the author cites “Medical Experimentation and Race in the Atlantic World.” The author’s research charges these scenes with a terrible plausibility.
During the trial of the “The Mulatta Murderess,” Frannie is asked why she didn’t just leave England. By then, slavery was illegal in Great Britain. Her reply is heartbreaking: No one told her that she could. It is this style of understated writing that packs the strongest punch. If the author would have stayed with this theme, this could have been an unusually good story, different from other historical novels on the subject of slavery. This is shown through Frannie’s narrative, “…no doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories…with misery and despair. But who’d want to read one of those?…What no one will admit about anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery…And, for all their talk of men as brothers, most of them stared at me as if I had two heads.”
In the second half of the book, Frannie is a lady’s maid to a wealthy Georgian couple who live in London. Here is where the story’s pacing becomes uneven with way too many subplots. It is easy to become less invested in the character because the story is all over the place. You will read about betrayal, murder, lesbian love, drug addiction, and a whorehouse devoted to spankings. The punch is muted, but not completely gone. It is impossible not to be swept away from a story with such concise and powerful writing. “My intentions in writing my jailhouse musings …it’s my life, I want to assemble the pieces of it myself…For every crime, there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner. That story is the one only I can tell.” The writing’s strength is reason enough to recommend the novel.
I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
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