Not With Silver by Simi Bedford
|Not With Silver by Simi Bedford|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: An important novel in terms of subject matter addressing the issue of African involvement in the supply-side of the slave trade, Not With Silver doesn't quite live up to its potential. A true epic saga lurks behind a novel too short to tell the whole story the way the author is almost certainly capable of telling it. It's worth the read, if sadly not one to treasure.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: July 2007|
|Publisher: Chatto and Windus|
1740. In the African town of Oyo court intrigues run rife. The women bow down before their husbands and masters, and try to advance the cause of the children. The hunter and the warrior are honoured... but it is the eunuch and the remembrancer and the civil servants who hold the power. Life goes on. Weddings are glorious affairs of wealth and splendour. Children are born, are doted upon and fretted about, and ignore their elders and betters to seek out their own ways. Into this world is born Abiola. He is of royal blood... he is to be a warrior and maybe one day a chief... maybe even greater than that.
1758. Cornelius is no longer a child of Africa, but an adult slave in the Americas. He remembers his teachings from the earlier time, but has much to learn about the ways of the people he finds himself among. Not only the white Americans surprise, but the attitudes among the slaves themselves do not always sit easy.
1789. Epiphany, a child of slavery, finds her way "back" to Africa with her mismatched band that have become family. Freedom will prove not to be all they had hoped, and more. Taking some of the white man's ways (and his religion) back to the continent of their ancestors stands them in good stead for the troubled times to come, but it also lays the very foundations for some of those troubles.
The dates are the starting points for the three segments of Bedford's family tale, which follows Abiola from his childhood out of Africa and the return of his blood to their native homeland. It is an epic tale.
It is also a very good story and, in may respects, one that really does need to be told.
Sadly Simi Bedford doesn't do it the justice it deserves.
For all the deliberate segmentation into the 'three' arenas... the story isn't neatly divided. The sweep is too grand and too deep to be crammed into the 350 pages of this book. One can't help wondering if this was a longer project that was completed in a rush to capture the bicentennial of the abolition. If so, it's an understandable move, but a misguided one. This story should have been told as the epic it is... in all of its detail. Each of those sections warrants a full-scale novel. As a trilogy this could have been superb.
There are passages where Bedford shows her capability in conjuring people and place, but she cannot indulge herself. The story has to be moved on, and quickly, if she is to get it told. The result is twofold. Firstly, except in short episodes she completely fails to capture the essence of the time and the place. This is particularly so in the first section in Africa, where this reader was left simply bemused. I had no real picture of the settings and the multitude of characters merged into a crowd with no fixed relationships.
The second problem is one of time. Once out of Africa, Bedford gets better at fixing her characters into real people... but she is still faced with this problem of having to get through the fifty years and cram in all that must happen in that time. Her solution is to skip timeframes. Years disappear from the calendar. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that as technique... but in Not With Silver it happens repeatedly throughout. Not just between chapters but within them. From one paragraph to the next, which appear to flow on from each other, you suddenly find you've lost another seven or eight years. It is most disorienting. There are no reference points to indicate the ellipse... so the author then feels obliged to point out what has happened in the interim. Telling rather than showing being the weakness of a debut novelist and one which Ms Bedford should be beyond.
However, disappointed as I was with the rendition... I applaud Ms Bedford for the story. It is the first novel that I have personally come across that addresses the role of the Africans in the slave trade. Human beings have always treated each other as chattels in one form or another - at times and in places perhaps more openly and cruelly than in others. If we bear the sins of our fathers, then none of our hands are clean in this. As a white European, I fully accept that without our demand the trade would not have flourished... but the supply was largely furnished at capture stage by black Africans and there are two sides to every bargain. That the supply-side continued well after the British abolition of the trade and involved some surprising collaborators was new to me. I'm pleased that it is a black author that has chosen to address this issue and for doing so head-on and in the context of a believable plot, I commend Ms Bedford's efforts.
I just wish she'd dropped sight of the anniversary and taken a bit more time over the writing of it.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.
For a factual account of the British part in the slave trade check out St Clair's The Grand Slave Emporium or for a view on how short a distance we've travelled towards recognising and respecting the freedoms of all our fellow-men try Another Sky.
You can read more book reviews or buy Not With Silver by Simi Bedford at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Not With Silver by Simi Bedford at Amazon.com.
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