Set in 1834, immediately following the Slavery Abolition Act, passed by the British Government the previous year, River Sing Me Home takes the reader from Barbados to British Guiana (now Guyana) and on to Trinidad. Plantation managers, in the Caribbean and other parts of the British Empire, who depended on slave labour to plant and harvest their crops of coffee, cotton and sugar cane, took their time implementing the new laws. Put under pressure to prolong the process by protesting plantation owners, several of the colonial governments decreed that they could legally contract slaves for a further six years.
Rachel has grown up and lived her whole life on a sugar cane plantation in Providence, Barbados. She knows only back-breaking, exhausting hard work from morning to dusk and the cruelty of the plantation’s master and overseers. She is broken and haunted by the loss of her children — six through stillbirths or death in infancy — and five who were taken from her and sold by the overseers.
One day the plantation’s master calls his slaves together and announces that they are free. After a brief pause, he tells them they are, however, obliged to remain working the plantation for another six years. Here the author describes the scene:
“Rachel heard the news of hollow freedom in silence. For years she had lived in perpetual twilight. Those she had loved were long gone. Her life had shrunk to the size of the plantation, the routine of endless toil, and the long shadows of what had once been. So where was the sense of it? Freedom was an emptiness that could only be filled with sugar cane.”
As she watches the temporary euphoria amongst her fellow-slaves fade, Rachel comes to a decision. Despite the whispered stories she heard growing up, about what happened to people from other plantations, she will escape and attempt to find her surviving children — Micah, Mary Grace, Mercy, Thomas Augustus and Cherry Jane. Here she reflects on the past:
“Throughout her childhood Rachel saw running as something beyond thought — an idea too abstract to be made real. It seemed impossible until, suddenly, it wasn’t. They woke up one morning and their fellow-slave was gone. Rachel was ten years old.”
Rachel escapes into a nearby forest, but quickly finds herself captured. However, her kidnapper is not anyone from the plantation. Instead, she is taken to a small community where runaways from other plantations reside. She is taken under the wing of the maternal figure of Bathsheba, or Mama B, as she is known. Many women have lost their children to slave masters wanting to make a quick buck by selling them on, and Mama B takes up Rachel’s cause, setting in motion the first leg of a long and complicated journey that will lead to Rachel finding and learning the fate of her children.
Mama B accompanies Rachel to Bridgetown, on the other side of the Island. It’s her first time away from Providence and Rachel is overwhelmed by her impressions, the noise, crowds and smells. This is one example and shows the lyrical quality of some of Shearer’s writing:
“The rain had broken and the clouds had parted. The sun was setting, its rays brushing against the tops of buildings crammed together along the streets. St. Mary’s Church, silhouetted by the red sky, looked forbidding and beautiful in equal measure.”
From Barbados Rachel’s quest takes her by sea to Guyana’s capital, Georgetown. On the voyage she meets a former sailor, named Nobody. Joining forces, they form a familial bond, as they continue to search for Rachel’s children. Their journey finally ends in Trinidad.
Rachel’s experiences represents every mother’s fears and hopes for her children. While she eventually locates and learns the story of all her missing offspring, she is also taught an important lesson — that children, once grown, are people in their own right, with their own dreams and aspirations. Their outlook may not necessarily be the same as that of their parents and they need to be allowed to make their own choices about how to live their lives. It doesn’t mean that their love diminishes, merely that their paths are not the same. Here Rachel summarises the tough deal every parent has to contend with.
“The sliver of hope for finding Thomas Augustus sustained her. but she was still carrying grief, like a dull ache in her bones. And not just for Micah, but for all the losses in her life — children, friends, lovers, She kept thinking of Samuel and Kitty who had died in infancy, trying to reach back in time to see if the relief she felt now was stronger than the grief she had felt then, and if so, what that revealed about the amount of love she had parcelled up for each of her children over the years.”
Telling her story almost entirely from Rachel’s point of view, Eleanor Shearer’s writing is intelligent and sensitive. Her descriptive powers and language are commendable, but the plot-driven narrative makes her characters feel more like puppets on a stage than living, breathing people with emotions leading difficult, traumatic lives. I do, however, see potential for more ’rounded’ characterisation which, I hope, Shearer will build and improve upon in future novels. This author is certainly one I can imagine going from strength to strength and I shall follow her progress keenly.
Any Cop?: This moving, beautifully-written début brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. A rare gem in twenty-first century fiction releases to date.