R88. The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

Year Published: 2014
Pages: 324

First Sentence: In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful.


Review:
I'm sad to report that The Moor's Account is one of those books that I was sure I'd love based on its premise, but that, when I actually ended up reading it, I just didn't connect with.

Here's that excellent premise: the book is based on a man most commonly known as Estevanico, who was the first known black person to visit the Americas. He was a slave and presumably involuntarily a member of the Narváez expedition to Florida. This expedition ended up failing spectacularly, with only four survivors making it across the North American continent to safety*. These four men, with the hindrance and help of the indigenous people, walked from Florida to Culiacán in Mexico—and eventually to Mexico City—over a period of several years.

So you may, like me, anticipate an exciting and interesting story based on that premise. You would be only half right. The story Laila Lalami invents for her lead character, who narrates the story in the first person and thinks of himself as Mustafa) is pretty interesting. The strongest parts are his recounting of his past as a merchant in Azemmur. Although this is just as invented as the rest of his story, it's obvious that Lalami had many more sources to work with to make her invention more vivid in this section. She clearly took care with how she portrayed her indigenous characters, at least in terms of providing a balanced portrayal, but I think that care led to them all being very flat.

In case it's still not clear, The Moor's Account may be interesting but it certainly isn't exciting. And I don't mean exciting as in action-packed, I mean exciting as in stimulating ideas and feelings. I wanted the characters and themes to grab my attention.

Maybe the book's biggest issue is the amount of plot that takes place over such a small number of pages. The book covers many years and miles in Mustafa's life, so that it rarely has room to breathe in any particular location or develop the characters there. It also doesn't give Mustafa as much space as he needs to grow as a character. Because the book is his memoir, he's already come to the end of his journey by the time he begins telling his story. There was very little sense of how difficult it would actually be for someone to learn and adapt to culture so much different from their own, while also coming from a position of disempowerment.

Ultimately the book doesn't go deep enough into its setting and its characters. There's a lack of description of the environment that was very much to its detriment. Throughout the book I was uncertain what part of the landscape the characters were supposed to be crossing at any given time, whether there were forests or deserts, whether there were mountains or huge rivers. Any of these landscapes would likely have been alien to Mustafa, but he doesn't bother to describe them much. This would have helped to ground the book in a time and place. In fact, the one thing it does really well is to show how vibrant and dense the existing population of North America was prior to European conquest. I've always had a feeling, shared with many other members of settler culture, of this part of the world being vast and empty prior to the arrival of Europeans, but of course it wasn't. Barring the invention of a time machine, we'll never know how many people were here, but I like that Lalami envisions a continent with a flourishing and varied population.

Overall, The Moor's Account is a good book but not a great one. I'd invite you to read it and see for yourself.

* The expedition began with about 600 people. For some reason every narrative I've found is very hazy on what happened to the members of the expedition who Narváez ordered to remain on their ships and sail up the coast, but it does seem that most of these made it along with the four survivors who walked overland. Still, not a successful expedition.

Current Distractions, July 2020 Edition

Even though I've been posting consistently, I feel like I've been neglecting the blog due to the fact that I've burned through my buffer of scheduled posts and am currently posting my regularly scheduled content the day before it's due to post. I do still have a very large buffer of reviews, but I still don't like to be in this position. In addition to that, I have lots of thoughts about coronavirus that I've wanted to post and haven't had time to articulate, and that sucks! Fortunately the world isn't relying on me to document this event. Less fortunately, I'll have lots of time to get to these posts because we're going to be in the midst of this global pandemic for quite some time yet.

The earlier part of July was taken up with a ton of overtime at work. I'm now trying to just enjoy the rest of the summer if I can. Open water swimming is tougher around my current city than I'd like it to be, but swimming is lower on my priority list these days. I have my week long summer holiday staycation coming up soon, and I'm really looking forward to that.

Watching
Castle Rock season 2
The Terror season 1
Eighth Grade
BlackGoat 666 on YouTube (a rare Canadian perspective, less satanic than his username makes it seem

Listening
Frightened Rabbit, various
HAIM, Women in Music Pt III
Tyler Childers, various

Playing
Alan Wake

Reading
The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Fire Sea by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

What I'm Reading: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

If you read people's comments about the Discworld series online, many of them say that the series doesn't really start to get good until Mort, the fourth entry. Having just finished reading Equal Rites a second time, I would disagree. This book, which introduces the Witches, feels a lot different than the two preceding books (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic). And when I say that it feels different, what I mean is that it feels a lot more like a Discworld novel.

I remember the first time I read this book really well. It's the book that I brought with me and read on the plane en route to Montreal in July 2011. When I arrived, I endured the hottest heat wave of my life and I've never forgiven the city for it. We'll see if I ever return, and not just because long distance travel is in question in new ways now.

So, Equal Rites.


I find it really interesting that Pratchett introduced his ultimate group of Strong Female Characters via a device in which a young girl inherits a wizard's staff - and no woman has ever been a wizard before (it's against the lore). I also find it really interesting that in his parody of fantasy tropes, the trope of all male wizards and all female witches is this high up on Pratchett's list. The book isn't about gender so much as it's about women's rights (though the two are of course related). It's also interesting that he chose to break away from Rincewind at this point. The Light Fantastic is a very direct sequel to The Colour of Magic and although there's the connecting tissue of the wizards and Unseen University appearing in this novel, Rincewind doesn't show up at all. Of course I know he'll be back, but readers in 1987 didn't, and so I wonder how they felt about the abrupt shift.

Granny Weatherwax is in this book, but not her companion, Nanny Ogg. I missed the contrast between the two of them. The young girl is Eskarina Smith (or Esk), who is stuck with wizard magic in the body of a person who ordinarily would become a witch.

Now, as a Discworld fan, the Witches have always been my favourite, and this was really cemented by the Tiffany books, which are a long way away in my publication order (re)read. Though they're in their infancy here, with Granny not quite herself and no Nanny Ogg, any Witch book is a good book as far as I'm concerned. I love the way that Pratchett is already developing their role as practical women who do what needs to be done. "Headology" is already in this book as being the Witches' primary method of doing magic. I teared up a little while reading the wikipedia article (warning that there are some spoilers in it).

All that being said, Equal Rites is still a bit wobbly. The whole book builds to a confrontation between Esk, a young wizarding student named Simon, and some things in the Dungeon Dimensions. This climax and the reasoning behind it are a bit confusing, and undercut what's going on with Esk and her efforts to become a student at the University.

I can't be objective about the Witches, though.

Fun fact from this book: the Unseen University is much, much larger than Gormenghast.

 

My other Discworld reviews:

  1. The Colour of Magic
  2. The Light Fantastic