Counternarratives, by John Keene, is a collection of historical fiction pieces imaginatively written in the style of reportage. Most are set in America through the centuries of slavery leading up to the practice’s eventual abolition. The exploration of ingrained and continuing racial prejudice is percipient and depressing.
The ownership of people, the cruelties inflicted and the effect this had on all is presented in a variety of settings. The attitude that troublesome slaves should be broken, that they were property to be used or traded, reminds the reader of the entitlement the paler skinned fully believed was their due. They could think ‘only of their own disappearing universe’, not that of those on whose lives they viciously inflicted their ideas.
These jaundiced views remain recognisable in the world we live in today. There were instances of comeuppance but only the occasional glimmer of positivity:
“we must never let the lies and the tears devour us, we must deliver and savor the years.”
The essence of the subject matter and the breadth and depth of each short story is impressive. However, although the author takes an innovative approach to presenting his themes I found the writing dense and often challenging to read. The stories are substantial with a strong evocation of time and place. What was a struggle was maintaining engagement.
There are many who appreciate strong, literary prose and this may well be a book more suited to them. As a reader who wishes to relax and enjoy a book these tales proved heavy going. Creatively constructed and thought provoking though each piece is, this is not a book that I can personally recommend.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.