THE bar is set high when a new novel comes with a cover quote from two-time Booker prize-winning author Hilary Mantel. That is the case with UCC graduate Laura McKenna’s debut novel Words To Shape My Name, described by Mantel as “an ambitious and vital novel with an epic sweep”.
Ms McKenna’s novel is worthy of the praise, a gripping and immersive read. Like Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Words To Shape My Name brings its historical setting alive, with nuanced and complex characters.
It opens in a London graveyard in 1857, where Miss Harriet Small is approached by a stranger with an intriguing gift. In the last will of a woman she barely remembers, Harriet has been left a collection of long-lost papers: her father Tony Small’s narrative of his years after escaping enslavement in America, and his close relationship with Irish revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
Through the papers we go back decades, to the initial meeting of Small and Fitzgerald in America in 1781. Small is a slave and Fitzgerald a soldier; following a first meeting where Small nurses Fitzgerald back to health, their destinies become intertwined and Small joins Fitzgerald on his travels and eventual return to Europe and Ireland.
But narrative is a slippery thing in this novel. Small’s papers are not a straightforward diary, written at his own instigation. Nearly 60 years earlier, in the aftermath of Fitzgerald’s death and disgrace in the 1798 Rebellion, his sister, Lady Lucy, commissioned him to write about his life as Fitzgerald’s manservant in the form of a ‘slave narrative’.
In the book we see not just Small’s initial writings but also Lucy’s reaction to them, in the form of notes and occasional deletions. She is not interested in a true account of the men’s time together, rather an idealised narrative that will restore her brother’s reputation and his family’s fortunes. When Small’s recollections paint her brother in an unflattering light she remonstrates with him and reminds him of the story’s purpose, as decided by her.
Adding another layer, we are reading his story alongside Small’s daughter. Harriet has her own memories and version of her father’s life, and her opinion of the Fitzgerald family and Lucy in particular has been coloured by her mother’s point of view.
Words To Shape My Name is a story about the nature and truth of history, who gets to tell it and how it is shaped.
Early in the book, Small is desperate to learn how to read and write. When Fitzgerald eventually teaches him, Small says: “I was admitted to a rarefied group of God’s humans who could communicate across oceans and speak to those whom they never met in person.”
But it is not as simple as knowing how to write and describing events. Through the layers of the story, Ms McKenna shows how slippery the truth can be, and how difficult it is to reduce the complex and sometimes turbulent relationship between Small and Fitzgerald to a straightforward story of rescue and gratitude, as Lucy wants.
Fitzgerald is adamant Small is free to choose his own path and to be treated with respect, but is not above using his colour when it suits him in a given situation.
Lady Lucy also encourages Small to show piety and gratitude to Fitzgerald when he tells their story. Words To Shape My Name is also about freedom and choice — described by Harriet as a ‘word what belongs only to them who’s got money’. All this in a narrative that also encompasses the American War of Independence and Ireland’s 1798 Rebellion.
This is an enthralling tale and an extraordinary debut.
Words To Shape My Name, by Laura McKenna is published by New Island Books.