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on 21 November 2007
This novel by Philippa Gregory takes a look at the slave trade in the period leading up to the abolition.
It tells the story of Mahuru, a high priest taken as a slave, and Francis Scott, the wife of the merchant who owns the slave ship that took him.
In an effort to increase his wealth, Francis's husband wishes to train the slaves as servants to be sold to wealthy families, and to Francis falls the task of teaching them English customs.
The characterisation in this novel is very superior. Mahuru is a kind, intelligent man who quickly masters the English language, but never loses sight of his heritage. But perhaps the most developed character is Francis, as she struggles between the ways of the English aristocrat that have been drilled in to her since childhood, and her growing empathy with those she must teach. Philippa Gregory handles this with skill, and those who have criticised Francis for wanting the best of both worlds, forget that far from being a woman ahead of her time, Philippa Gregory has taken the more original step of creating a woman very much of her time.
Her descriptions of the brutality the slaves had to endure are poignant and all the more disturbing for their accuracy. It is right that the story does not gloss over the behaviour of our ancestors, as a less dedicated writer of historical fiction might be tempted to do. This novel has the Philippa Gregory trade mark attention to detail and thorough painstaking research. I was quite moved to tears by the end.
A haunting novel well worth reading and rereading.
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on 12 January 2011
I'm not going to say I expected or hoped for a sensible novel on slavery, because I've read enough Philippa Gregory novels to know that's not her thing. Gregory prefers forbidden passions and crushing sorrow and harsh times. This, although no less absorbing than any other of her novels, does of course focus on a love affair (or at least, mainly the leading up to it) between a privileged but unhappy woman and an oppressed African slave. One has to suspend belief more than a little, but then what does one expect? I didn't mind too much.

It would have been brilliant if Gregory had taken this further. I wish she had done away with the sticky imagery and somersaulting emotions, and produced a raw piece of fiction. I believe it would have been better had Francis and Mehuru's love for one another been not the gooey sort of love that the historical fiction genre spews, but rather a more angry, uncertain, unconsummated love. Not falling into a bed scattered with petals (I tell you, it's true.)

But I won't slate Gregory, no I shan't. She was brave to take on a topic like this, and incorporate it into one of her fizzling romances. And she did well, I don't think there is any doubt, in painting Francis' husband, a slave-owner and profiteer of the 'respectable' trade of the title, not as a wicked man but as a foolish one, a product of his time, of the same misguided and shuttered politics many shared. As well as this, it was a grand idea to contrast Francis' power over Mehuru, with men's had power over women in the 18th century.
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on 15 February 2004
This is a book i have come back to again and again. The period of history it covers is fascinating and was relatively unknown to me and the empathy with the characters is enormous. It is beautifully and skillfully written.
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on 6 July 2002
I love Philippa Gregory's books, but I found myself worrying a little too much about the fate of the characters to really enjoy this novel. I felt sorry for the slaves that were kidnapped in Africa and brought to England and also for the disgusting way in which they were treated. However I also felt so sorry for Josiah, a small businessman-trader who owns a couple of small trading ships, who tries to better himself by marrying the niece of a titled gentleman. In order to be able to enjoy the privileges given to the bigger businessmen he joins their elite association and is eventually forced to turn to the slave trade to in the hope of increasing his profits. However, his wife pushes for greater riches and a bigger house and poor Josiah has to borrow more and more money against his small trading ships, even when he is not sure whether the return against them will be enough to cover his debts. Torn in two by his status-hungry wife and his business-headed sister, Josiah is led into a trap set for him by the rich tradesmen that he has come to trust, whereby he stands to lose everything he has striven to achieve. I had a knot in my stomach for most of the time that I was reading this book and I wanted to scream out a warning to Josiah, because I could foresee his potential downfall. The author has obviously well-researched the history of the slave trade and is able to make the atmosphere come alive. This book is very well written - so well written, in fact, that the fate of Josiah and his family became almost real! Engrossing!
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on 9 March 2007
Cracking, self-contained adventure that is informative and entertaining throughout. A rollercoaster ride towards doom, you might think, and although most of your worst fears are realised by the end of the book, Gregory gives Josiah Cole a way out with the suggested formation of a bank. Though most people know about the American slave trade, Britain's part in this disgraceful business is not always so well covered. Thank heavens for Wilberforce.
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on 23 February 2014
Wow, what a powerful book. I thought Gregory handled the sensitive topic expertly and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I am born and bred in Bristol so that added another element for me as I know all the place names and enjoyed experiencing my city in the 18th century.
Gregory has created some great characters in the book: Josiah, the ambitious trader who wants to become gentry and will take risks to get there; Sarah, his stern and serious sister who advises Josiah that the only way to success is to work hard but keep to what they know and stay steady; Frances, who marries Josiah because she is in her 30s and thinks it will be the only offer she gets, so she agrees to a marriage of convenience, but doesn't quite realise what she is getting herself into .... and of course the wonderful Mehura - Frances falls in love with him, and I think every reader will too!!!
The slave trade was, of course, utterly appalling. In some places this book breaks your heart and you feel so much for the poor African peoples, stolen from their homes - men, women, children and even babies. Many died on the long voyage to England, the conditions were inhumane and the dead were flung into the sea. Despite the atrocity, human strength prevails in many cases - Mehura. We must never forget. Thank you Wilberforce.
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on 7 April 2002
The BBC TV adaptation of this novel of a number of years ago really impressed me, so more recently I read the original book. The plot is highly compelling and immerses the reader in the world of the time. The love story is touching and tastefully portrayed. I very much enjoyed this novel, as with all other novels by Philippa Gregory that I have read.
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on 19 December 2011
This book started off a little slow,but it became so emotional as the story started unfolding, I was in tears.Very dramatic,well worth it !!!
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on 5 January 2014
I have read a few Philippa Gregory books previously, and found them to be good stories based around historical facts - in fact I owe alot of my knowledge of Tudor "Who's Who" to her Boleyn books. This one,however,left me cold.
By nature of it's subject matter it was in places very grim reading, but by the end of the book I really didn't care what happened to the characters. Although the love story was apparently based in fact, I found it pretty unbelievable. First of all he despises her (understandably), then he loves her, overnight. I found the main female protagonist to be somewhat pathetic and very irritating.Her husband,supposedly a successful businessman,suddenly becomes a bit stupid and the slaves' huge grasp of English in such a short time is nothing short of miraculous. The most believable character is the sister in law, who,whilst unpleasant, is the most honest of the whole lot. Having finished the book I tossed it aside with a snort of exasperation....
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on 2 April 2013
I almost despaired by page 3. Mehuru does not resemble a Yoruba name, not really sure it is one. And what the heck is an obalawa??? It's a babalawo. Africa is not a country (contrary to popular opinion); if you cherry pick a name, you end up with the grating equivalent of an 18th century English courtier named Alojzija Helmut.
But I continued and found a very compelling story with characters strong enough to make you want to cry or at least look away from their struggle (but of course you can't, you have to know how it ends). Like many others, I did not buy the sappy love story idea. But perhaps it is more a problem with me than with the story. The lens through which slavery (or indeed Africa in general) is viewed lets in pain and suffering but filters out love, laughter, resilience, hope and the human tendency to grasp at joy in whatever tiny quarter you might find it.
And if all that is still implausible, we can attribute the passion to Stockholm Syndrome.
It was a brave effort,I think, because it could not have been an easy book to write. And researching that period would not have been the most fun; she tackled issues courageously. Some reviewers have said the lovey dovey dialogue is like a Harlequin or Mills and Boon. Perhaps. But it would be an injustice to assume the entire book is like that; it's a whole lot more than that, a very good read.
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