Palmares de Gayl Jones review – a enslaved child in search of utopia | fiction

AAmerican author Gayl Jones was introduced to the world in 1975 by her then-editor Toni Morrison, who after reading her manuscript said that “no novel about a black woman could be the same after that. “. Jones’s first novel, when she was 26, Corregidora, was greeted by James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. Set in Kentucky in the 1940s, it is blues singer Ursa, who, after being pushed down a staircase by her husband, reflects on her life, relationships and family. The book examines the trauma that haunts her, dating back to the fact that her great-grandmother and grandmother were raped by 19th-century Brazilian slave owner Corregidora.

prize list, Jones’ seventh novel, a 512-page odyssey, further explores the lives of those affected by the slave trade in Brazil, this time focusing on the 17th century. The story is told from the perspective of Almeyda, a seven-year-old slave at the start of the book, who lives on a plantation in the northeastern state of Bahia with her mother and grandmother, “a madwoman. who knows magic ”.

Almeyda is curious about everything, especially Mexia, the almost mute native housekeeper of the priest Tollinare, who carried out experiments teaching slave children to read and write. “Do you think Father Tollinare is making love with the Mexia woman?” she asks her mother.

Sadistic plantation owner Entralgo plans to give Almeyda to a man seeking the blood of a black virgin to cure him of an illness, but her mother provides her with a “secret” black grass water to protect her. . When the man comes back to rape Almeyda, he becomes frustrated: “She won’t be grabbed. It keeps pushing me out. This is one of the many times Jones uses concoctions, rituals, and clairvoyance to imagine protecting historically unprotected people.

Almeyda is finally separated from her family and finds herself in Palmares, a place in which blacks live unhindered and a true 17th century autonomous community of around 20,000 enslaved and rescued fugitives in what is now the state of Alagoas. Zumbi, a resistance leader, is resurrected in the novel, but his warrior wife, Dandara dos Palmares, is missing. Oddly enough, Jones gave Zumbi a white bride.

Delicately, Jones tries to deconstruct the concept of utopia. Although Palmares is apparently the Promised Land, those who are forcibly pulled from the plantations or women who refuse to marry remain slaves. When Almeyda marries a Muslim named Anninho, he considers leaving. “They destroy one Palmarès, we scatter, we form another. This one is destroyed… Generation of destroyed villages, new villages and new destruction. I know the cycle by heart.

Shortly after, however, they are captured by Portuguese soldiers. She is mutilated and Anninho disappears, forcing Almeyda to try to find him, assisted by a mystic, Luiza Cosme. She learns to survive in the wild on berries and to grow old to avoid detection. It is a trek of a love story.

prize list is busy with visitors; a painter, a lexicographer, a journalist, witches, healers, free men, disfigured women. Sometimes the conveyor belt of new characters is disorienting, while the dialogue can be repetitive. “And her breasts were big. I had never seen such big breasts. Her breasts were big… ”is a typical phrase.

But that’s a small price to pay for a book full of imagination and visionary thinking. After a two-decade absence, Jones is back with a formidable novel steeped in history, magical realism, trauma and triumph.

prize list by Gayl Jones is published by Virago (£ 18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply