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All Soul's Rising ()

Granta Top 20 Authors Under 40

When every reviewer uses the same set of words or phrases to describe a book, it means either that the tale is universal, transparent and easily understood or the exact opposite; it is impenetrable & the reviewer gave up and went with the consensus viewpoint.  So when you see these words--"intricate", "labyrinthine", "byzantine"--in all of the reviews of this book, you know you are in trouble; these are not adjectives that lead one to believe that the story will be readily understandable.  But, they are accurate; this book is so complex as to be incomprehensible.  I finally gave up on this one after trying to read it about five different times.

The best Historical Fiction takes great events with which we are familiar but brings an added human dimension to them, first by fleshing out the basic situations via fictional narrative techniques (dialogue, characters thoughts, etc.), but second, by taking the historical context and peopling it with living characters.  There is a great difference between the Claudius of a Roman History book and the Claudius of Robert Graves' novels.  Graves' achievement is that he breathes life into Claudius and makes him a virtual contemporary of ours, which adds immediacy to the historic circumstances and gives us a vested interest in what occurs.  History essentially is transformed into the present.

In All Soul's Rising, on the other hand, Bell plops the reader down in the midst of the incredibly violent Haitian revolt at the turn of the 19th Century and through the use of shifting perspectives, allows the reader access to the experiences of those caught up in it, but he provides no context for what is occurring.   Basically he's trying to tell the story of a riot from the viewpoint of the rioters; there's just a whirl of events, the meaning of which is impossible to decipher.  There are scenes of elaborate torture and violence, but we are so deeply thrust into the story that we have no idea how they connect back to the tides of history.  The book seems to be about nothing more than the racial violence itself, disconnected from any rhyme or reason.

Perhaps this is partly Bell's intent, to demonstrate that all racial violence is senseless?  I do know that in one of the interviews below, he says that he sees the Haitian Uprising as a metaphor for American race relations.  Huh?  In what conceivable way are they comparable?  The only really significant outbreak of violence in the history of American race relations is the Civil War, when whites fought each other over the issue.   Jim Crow, while a repellent feature of our History, was brought to an end with virtually no violence at all (the murders of Civil Rights workers the sporadic church bombings and the police attacks on demonstrators stand out precisely because they were the exception to the rule).  Perhaps Bell's interest in tying the Revolt to American History caused him to lose sight of Haitian and French History and to cut the story loose from it's historical moorings.  Whatever the case, with his focus wholly on particular isolated events, Bell fails to place the entire story into any broader context; like the blind men describing an elephant, all is detail, there is no whole.


Grade: (F)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Madison Smartt Bell Homepage
    -EXCERPT:  From All Souls' Rising by Madison Smartt Bell
    -"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut (Web del Sol)
    -Malick Ghachem Book Review (Stanford Electronic Humanities Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Madison Smartt Bell   (Beatrice)
    -Interview with Madison Smartt Bell (Justin Cronin, Four Quarters)
    -REVIEW: 'Souls' a painful account of events that led to the Haitian revolution ( Andy Solomon, Detroit News)
    -REVIEW: Saga of the slaves (Stephen Gray, London Mail & Guardian)