Monday, September 14, 2015

book review: The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

The backstory: The Moor's Account is on the 2015 Booker Prize longlist, was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, and was a 2014 New York Times Notable book.

The basics: The Moor's Account is "the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America—a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record. In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a crew of six hundred men and nearly a hundred horses. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and famous as Hernán Cortés." (from the publisher)

My thoughts:  Lalami uses language to differentiate our narrator from his captors: "How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it." Yet this distinction also serves as a bully pulpit of sorts. As a reader, If thought Lalami was speaking through the narrator rather than the narrator speaking through her. In this sense, The Moor's Account felt like an academic exercise rather than a story. Indeed, Lalami (or her narrator) tell the reader this very thing in the opening pages: "my countrymen will hear about my wondrous adventures and take from them what wise men should: truth in the guise of entertainment." Yet as a reader I found this novel long on truth and short on entertainment. In fact, it felt long period. I read an ebook version, so I was surprised to see this novel is just over 300 pages. Left to guess, I thought it was at least a hundred pages longer.

I feel as though I'm being hard on The Moor's Account, and I am. I came to it relatively late, and it's been nearly universally lauded. I had high expectations, and while I think it's of a high quality, I had to slog through parts of it. As interesting as the idea is, the novel itself isn't that interesting. It didn't feel new. I wanted to like it so much more than I did. Perhaps if it weren't in the style of a memoir, an approach that felt inauthentic to me, it would have worked better for me.

Favorite passage:  "When I fell into slavely, I was forced to give up not just my freedom, but also the name that my mother and father had chosen for me. A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world."

The verdict: The Moor's Account is a fascinating concept and storyline, yet I didn't really enjoy the experience as a reader. I liked Lalami's language, but I felt she was trying to make statements rather than tell a story. As an intellectual exercise, it was enough to keep me reading. For a book about a moralistic view of humanity and race, I felt no emotional connection to the character, which prevented my enjoyment for this novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Moor's Account from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Laila Lalami's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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