With prejudice

<strong>The Amalgamation Polka</strong>

Stephen Wright <em>Faber & Faber, 323pp, £12.99</em>


Liberty Fish, the portentously named son of staunch abolitionists, carries forth the ideals under which he was nurtured by enlisting with the Union during the American civil war. His mission of emancipation takes a personal bent, as the journey south leads him to the slaveholding grandparents he knows only through his mother's painful memories of severed ties.

The harrowing depictions of Liberty’s war experiences pale next to what unfolds in the ancestral home. Here he finds his grandparents ferociously clinging to the vestiges of "slavocracy", in which they unleash power in a cruel and unpredictable manner. Unable to contend with a collapsing Confederacy, Liberty's grandfather, Asa Maury, imposes his own moral order and will upon his slaves. He fervently believes in the notion of a "superior" white race, which is in stark contrast to Liberty's vision of a racially united America. It is difficult not to wish for Liberty to present a bolder challenge to his grandfather, but instead Wright offers a silent space in which the reader can alone reflect upon Asa's rationale.

Wright's narration is as lively as the dialogue of his characters is implausible. Liberty's voice is so articulate that it lacks authenticity. Parody adds to the humour of the novel, but fails to inspire trust in the main characters.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics