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Review: All Souls’ Rising, by Madison Smartt Bell
Vintage, 2004. 530 pp. $17

Some books grab you by the throat; this one grabbed me and squeezed. I’m glad I read All Souls’ Rising and likely won’t forget it until I lose my marbles. But boy, is it hard to talk about.

Yet this book should be talked about, and read, for its boldness as much as anything else. Originally published in 1995, it’s the first volume of a trilogy recounting the only successful slave revolution in history, which began in Haiti in 1791. The premise: The French Revolution caused echoes in this slave colony, then known as Saint Domingue, leading to a grisly race war. And when I say grisly, I mean tortures I shudder even to name, next to which rape and murder seem ordinary.

The narrative follows characters from every conceivable perspective. There are racists on both sides, soldiers who switch sides, white colonists, Creoles of every social caste, bullies, braggarts, hotheads who want to settle scores–and, lest the reader despair altogether, a very few who try to contain the violence. These include the remarkable slave leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and a white doctor he protects, Antoine Hébert.

In lesser hands, the racists would be merely ugly, and Toussaint live up to his name, while the Good Doctor, a cliché in colonial literature, would resemble a cardboard cutout. But Bell takes the high road, giving them vulnerabilities, making them human. What’s more, they change, not to acquire haloes, but to display under severe duress characteristics they might not have known they possessed, which you find yourself admiring, however grudgingly, in some cases.

Another temptation Bell resists is the chance to make speeches or explain; instead, he conveys attitudes through action. For instance, Hébert teaches his Creole lover to play chess; a visitor to the household notices the board and sniggers. You don’t need a gloss to read the visitor’s thoughts: What a ninny Hébert is to lavish such pretensions on a woman with black blood in her.

Unfortunately, Bell has his own pretensions. To be sure, he knows his ground, and, to name one example, portrays the slaves’ religious beliefs and practices in scenes that feel lived in from the inside, a brilliant achievement. But he risks the whole tone of the novel (and the reader’s involvement) with frequent passages in French and Creole, which, though explicable from the context, call attention to themselves.

I also wonder why, in the first volume of a trilogy, the author leaps back and forth in time, maybe getting ahead of the story, and himself. The switches can be hard to follow, another reason All Souls’ Rising is no easy book.

But it’s an important one, a rare find, I think, when so many books are about so little. It’s not just about Haiti, of course; it’s about anyplace where one race has ever oppressed another. All Souls’ Rising made me look in the mirror.