Kate McCafferty, Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl (Viking Penguin, 2002)

If a geography of human suffering is ever written, the tiny West Indian island of Barbados will surely get a chapter all its own. Though it's now described as an island paradise, in the 17th century it was known as "the white man's graveyard," and likened to "a dunghill" with the planters at the top of the heap greedily pecking through the shit.

From the mid-17th century to the dawn of the 18th century, Barbados was the proving ground for plantation slavery in North America. The slave system introduced in Barbados was more brutal than previous forms of slavery. Because the profits from sugar were astronomical and the pool of slaves, convicts and indentured laborers seemed limitless, planters did not believe that preserving the lives of their workers was important.

It's a little-known fact that in the early years of the Barbadian plantation system, white convicts, prisoners of war and indentured servants were forced to work alongside African slaves in the cane fields and sugar refineries. The white bondsmen were, for the period of their indenture, subject to the same regimen as the slaves. They could be worked to death, starved, raped, and tortured. Any children they had during their term of service belonged to their masters. Infractions were punished by increasing the bondsman's term of service, so that, for many, what had originally been a seven-year contract became a lifetime of slavery.

At age 11, Cot Daley, the daughter of a Galway tradesman and fictional heroine of Kate McCafferty's novel, is abducted and sold as an indentured servant in Barbados. During her 29 years of servitude, Cot is sold and resold and her original 7-year term of service keeps getting longer and longer. Though Cot twice acts in ways that save the planters from revolts, she finally joins the rebels and is brought more dead than alive to Dr. Peter Coote, the new Apothecary-Surgeon of Speightstown Jail for interrogation.

Because of the slave mutiny, the Governor of the island is anxious to reassert his authority. He is especially troubled by the alliance between African slaves and white bondsmen. He assigns Dr. Coote, a down-at-heels English gentleman with a queasy conscience, the task of discovering how the Africans and whites were able to ally by interrogating Cot. He needs to find the link between the blacks and the whites so he can destroy it.

The rest of the novel is Cot's narration of how she evolved from a convent-educated schoolgirl to a mutinous bondswoman.

This is nitpicking, I know, but having the two main characters named Cot and Coote is really annoying. Is the similarity between names meant to suggest a kinship between prisoner and interrogator? Does it underline the characters' major character flaws? (Cot is passive like a cot and Coote suffers from a moral blindness that makes him a spiritual "blind old coot.")

Writing historical fiction is very hard work. In addition to creating engaging and believable characters and a believable plot, the writer must ensure that characters speak and act in ways that seem consistent with the rules of their society and time. She must create a world that is true to what we know of history, human nature and common sense.

Unfortunately, McCafferty fails on all of these counts. I hadn't even made it through the first sentence of her preface before I began to suspect she had a somewhat shaky grasp of Barbadian history. In this sentence, McCafferty writes:

"Between the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) and the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II in 1660, an estimated 50,000-80,000 Irish men women and children were shipped to Barbados as indentured servants."

Since the first British settlement of Barbados did not occur until 1627, I can only assume that getting through customs was even worse then than it is now.

Her Barbados, with its "proud mountains," sweltering heat and dense rain forest sounds more like Jamaica or Dominica than the Barbados I remember. Barbados has steep hills that are charitably referred to as "mountains," a temperate climate, and was deforested long before Cot Daley would have ever have set foot on its soil.

My biggest problem was with Cot's voice. Though the Bajans (the local dialect term for "Barbadian") have some of the most wonderfully inventive dialect in the West Indies, Cot doesn't speak with the voice of someone who lived in the polyglot world of the slave plantation. She gained the rudiments of literacy by attending convent school, but her education was cut short when she was Barbadoed at age 11. The nuns at the convent must have been devotees of the works of Dr. Samuel Johnson, for the half-educated Cot speaks in the polished language of a 17th century English gentleman and uses lots of Latin words such as "parturition." (The word "parturition" is used so frequently by Cot that I began to wonder what exactly those wild and crazy nuns were teaching in that Galway convent.)

Cot also spends lots of time describing things that 20th century readers will find fascinating, but would have been too commonplace for an 17th century person to notice. For example, she describes women's petticoats in exacting detail. In a novel placed in our time, it would be the equivalent of having a prisoner interrupt the interrogation to describe the workings of the electric light the interrogator was shining in her eyes.

Sometimes Cot sounds more like she's competing in a poetry slam than being the subject of an interrogation. At one point she says, "…slave children are born with silken flesh and petal mouths and eyes remote and molten as an angel's from the stars." And then later on, "The last breath of something burning with life's orange flame had been exhaled. Further… further… losing shape, then visibility…spreading out smaller than dust motes toward the cold cold stars." This is not bad prose, but it's certainly not what you'd expect a prisoner to give voice to in an interrogation.

The whole pretext for the interrogation seems bogus. The planters didn't care why their slaves rebelled. They simply quashed the rebellions as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible. This was especially true in Barbados, which was too small and too flat and deforested to harbor a guerilla insurgency. It is not until the middle of the book that one gets a halfway plausible explanation for the interrogation. The Governor believes that Cot is the lynchpin of an island-wide conspiracy masterminded by the Irish.

Another plot point that seems a bit implausible is young Cot's being assigned to field labor. She is described as beautiful, literate and a virgin, plus she has proven her loyalty to her masters by informing on her friends who were planning a revolt. Her owner seems unbelievably stupid to put her to field work when she could fetch an infinitely higher price as a house servant or concubine. Cot's being recruited for another slave mutiny is another point of implausibility. She had already betrayed two slave mutinies. Given her track record, why was she recruited a third time?

Most importantly, there is a great big black hole in this book where a protagonist ought to be. Cot is garrulous, but we never get a sense of who she is. The tendency for slaves to become numb and divorced from their own feelings is a historically well-documented effect of enslavement, but Cot's alcohol-fueled passivity causes the story to become stuck. She is a character who evokes little more than the reader's pity.

The momentum of the plot picks up when, in mid-story, the focus shifts from Cot to Coote. While Cot is only perceived through her speech, we get a whole lot of Coote's thoughts. Coote is on the verge of a crisis of the soul and interrogating Cot could send him over the edge.

Coote is an impoverished gentleman trying to mend his fortune. The only means of doing this is to toady to the Governor, a man the snobbish Coote considers crass, disgusting and corrupt. A meal with the governor has Coote puking in the shrubbery from revulsion. Coote is about to seal a devil's bargain; he is in the process of selling his soul for the opportunity to be accepted by people who disgust him. He is even more out of place in Bajan society than Cot. She has a well-defined role as an Irish slave. He, however, is marked as an outsider by birth, education, manners, religion — indeed his whole cast of mind. He constantly struggles to stifle his compassion for Cot and his disgust at planter society. His slow slide into corruption is signaled in a very contrived way. He has a "Picture of Dorian Gray" relationship with his haberdashery. Each time McCafferty mentions his fraying lace cuffs, Coote takes another step down the road to damnation. After building up Coote's moral conflict, McCafferty inexplicably lets it drop. Coote gets a gift of embroidered lacy shirts from the Governor. His qualms immediately disappear and he becomes a toady's toady.

McCafferty has an important story to tell but it never comes to life. More vivid and engaging characters and a more rooted sense of time and place would have made this a truly remarkable book.

[Liz Milner]