This incredible debut novel grabbed hold of my mind and heart, never letting go until the final paragraph. I shed tears at several points in Rachel’s journey and she’s a character I won’t forget. We meet her working on a plantation in Barbados, at that strange point after slavery when plantations were instructed to free slaves, but their sense of freedom was short-lived as masters were able to keep slaves for a further six years as apprentices. So, despite being freed the day afterwards started just the same, at the crack of dawn and walking to the cane fields for a day of back breaking work. Having nothing meant that most had no other choice. Rachel is thinking of her children, several lost before they had a chance to live but others scattered to the four winds. Her boys Micah and Thomas Augustus and her girls Cherry Jane, Mary Grace and Mercy all taken from her in different ways. Only Cherry Jane spends a few years nearby as a house slave, but in her superior position she doesn’t acknowledge Rachel who is merely a field hand. One day she decides that she must find her children, she must know where they are and what happened to them, even if the news is that devastating final loss. Rachel says that as a slave she plants cane but nothing of her own. However her children came about, Rachel feels that they anchor her in this world and she can’t rest until she finds them. So she runs and with our hearts pounding we follow her.
As Rachel took her journey I kept thinking about my own mum. She always feels at her happiest when we’re all under her roof, all four generations. She told me that she feels like we’re all safe and there’s a feeling of completeness. I am not a mother, so until recently I hadn’t experienced anything like this, but now I am a step-mum and I do get a sense of relief when both my stepdaughters are here under my roof. There’s a feeling that I could close the curtains and we’d all be safe. I couldn’t imagine how it must feel to have those children stripped from you as commodities to be sold. As I finished reading the book on Holocaust Memorial Day, my mind was also taken to an account by a survivor on TikTok where she described her family being split apart into separate queues as they reached Auschwitz. She was placed in one queue bound for a factory sewing uniforms, but her mother and sister were deemed unsuitable for work and in the chaos was the final moment she saw them. It’s a similar atrocity, so huge that it’s hard to imagine or compute. A whole race of people are deemed as expendable and discarded with no more regard than swatting a fly. In amongst some powerful and distressing scenes in the book, one thing that hit me really hard was Rachel’s realisation that her emotions didn’t matter. As a younger woman she had held herself proudly and resolutely, determined that the actions of the overseer wouldn’t make her cry. As an older woman she realises that she could have owned her grief, it wouldn’t have satisfied or pleased the overseer to see her distress because she simply didn’t matter to him.
Rachel’s journey is a long one, across Barbados and over to Trinidad, and we experience every moment with her. The author provides vivid descriptions of each place Rachel experiences down to the way the earth feels under her feet. Cities give her a certain anonymity, but it’s in nature that I really felt Rachel’s freedom. The author layers sounds of birds, running water and wind through the trees with the feel of leaves or water against the skin. The water of the rivers are welcoming and help her journey: kayaking up the Demerara to look for runaway communities in the forest and Thomas Augustus; rushing down river holding an uprooted tree to avoid capture; feeling cocooned and supported by the water in a bathing pool. The runaway community are made up of escaped slaves and indigenous tribesmen who have survived the colonisation of their island and the forest both hides them and supports them. There is a sense of abundance in the food, the company and the mix of cultures that comes out in musical form. The ancient songs of Rachel’s African heritage come alive for her when mixed with slave songs and the music of the indigenous tribes represented. It seems fitting that it is in the forest that a marriage takes place and a baby is born – these are the building blocks of the future and that future is truly free.
I found some of the characters Rachel comes across on her travels fascinating and they add something to the tale by bringing their own experience, adjustment and acceptance of their situation. Nobody has adopted the very part of his identity forged by the slave experience, the sense that he is no one and belongs nowhere. Despite the negative connotations of the name, being nobody allows him to take his power back, to be anonymous, to escape unseen and leave a mark nowhere. He has been transitory ever since he started running, living a transitory life on the ships that travel between the islands, perhaps feeling more at home in the water than on the land he was enslaved by. I wondered whether Rachel’s quest would make a mark on him and if he would find a true home, whether that be a place or a person. I was also intrigued by Hope, whose very name embodies looking forward. She has found her place in Bridgetown by entertaining paying gentlemen. She is beautiful, impeccably dressed and seems to have found a independent way of living she’s at peace with. While some people don’t want to be seen with her, Rachel is not so judgmental. After all, Rachel tells us, men have been inside her but there she was the one who paid the price. The threat of sexual violence is alluded to but never explicit. Rachel won’t discuss or ask another woman how her children have come into being, because she knows the pain of a pregnancy where you pray the child you carry has no resemblance to it’s father. Equally she knows what it’s like to dread the birth of a child who might bear a resemblance to a man greatly loved and lost forever. We don’t know about the conception of any of Rachel’s children. Her ‘pickney’, as she calls them, are hers and hers alone and it is this that makes it imperative that she finds them. She needs to find them, in order to feel whole.
The whole journey is littered with joys and terrible grief, but Rachel knows she must keep going. She meets others who have started to build a new life, placing the past firmly behind them and never pining for it. They live firmly in the here and now with questions left unanswered and people left behind. For Rachel that isn’t enough. Her children are like the scattered pieces of a broken vase. She doesn’t expect her family to be perfect and knows that there will be cracks and missing pieces. Rachel is putting her broken vase back together and she will pour a substance into the cracks, bringing the pieces together until her past is whole again. The binding substance used in Japanese Kintsugi pottery is usually gold, each crack making the piece more beautiful. In Rachel’s case the binding substance is love. Love for those here, those found but far away and those gone forever. An all encompassing love symbolised by the birth of a baby in the forest.
There was a ‘feeling of complete, absorbing, unqualified love. The baby was a stranger, without speech, unknowable. It would be years before he could say what was on his mind. And yet, love did not wait. Love was there in the beginning – even before the beginning. Love needed no words, no introduction. Existence was enough.’
Published on 19th Jan by Headline Review
Meet The Author
Eleanor Shearer is a mixed race writer from the UK. She splits her time between London and Ramsgate on the coast of Kent, so that she never has to go too long without seeing the sea.
As the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants who came to the UK as part of the Windrush Generation, Eleanor has always been drawn to Caribbean history. Her first novel, RIVER SING ME HOME (Headline, UK & Berkley, USA) is inspired by the true stories of the brave woman who went looking for their stolen children after the abolition of slavery in 1834.
The novel draws on her time spent in the Caribbean, visiting family in St Lucia and Barbados. It was also informed by her Master’s degree in Politics, where she focused on how slavery is remembered on the islands today. She travelled to the Caribbean and interviewed activists, historians and family members, and their reflections on what it really means to be free made her more determined than ever to bring the hidden stories of slavery to light.