Written in taut, poetic language, THE LONGEST MEMORY is set on a Virginian plantation in the 19th century, and tells the tragic story of a rebellious, fiercely intelligent young slave who breaks all the rules: in learning to read and write, in falling in love with a white girl, the daughter of his owner, and, finally, in trying to escape and join her in the free North. For his attempt to flee, he is whipped to death in front of his family, and this brutal event is the pivot around which the story evolves.
D’Aguiar’s novel The Longest Memory is one that I have been studying this week in my Representing Slavery module at university but it’s unlike any of the other books that we’ve studied so far so I’ve decided to make it my début review. The subject matter is obviously a sensitive one, one that it is difficult to say you’ve enjoyed lest someone get the wrong impression. So instead I will say that I enjoyed D’Aguiar’s writing in this novel. He does not adhere to the same restrictions that perhaps other writers fall prey to in the sense that he has a freedom and fluidity of medium that I personally have never experienced before. It’s written mostly in first person present but not completely, he adopts different characters voices (both male and female), he switches to verse form and back, he incorporates newspaper clippings and diary entries. The result of this is a novel that intrigues the reader as you have no idea what you to expect as you turn the page.
The beauty of this novel is that although it is fairly short (a godsend when doing an English degree) it’s polyphonic form makes it feel full. It effectively tells one story from many perspectives, each chapter/character giving us a little more information/insight into the one event that is the main focus of the book.
Although there is both violent and disturbing imagery in The Longest Memory it does not detract from the beauty of the writing or the complexity of what D’Aguiar is trying to do with this novel. I would wholeheartedly recommend it just for the experience of reading a novel that so flies in the face of what we’re used to expecting when we pick up a novel.