Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

forty acresThe sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When up-and-coming lawyer Martin Grey is hired to fight a racial prejudice lawsuit against a big corporation, he finds himself up against a fellow black lawyer, the slick and successful Damon Darrell. Pulling off a shock victory, Martin is surprised when Darrell shows up at the celebration party and begins to draw Martin into his circle of exclusively black friends. As well as growing to like Darrell, Martin sees how useful these successful and powerful men could be to his career so, although his white partner is a bit miffed at being excluded from the charmed circle, Martin allows himself to be flattered by their attention. So although he’s not an outdoorsy type, he agrees to join them on one of their regular white-water rafting trips. But as he’s enjoying the journey aboard the luxurious private jet, Martin suddenly realises they’re not heading in the direction he was expecting…

In some respects, this could be seen as a fairly standard thriller – good guy, villains, jeopardy etc. But the underlying premise is much more thought-provoking and quite disturbing. The title refers to the promise made to emancipated slaves that each would be given forty acres and a mule – a promise subsequently broken. Martin soon discovers that the group he has joined is something of a cult, under the leadership of the guru-like Dr Kasim, dedicated to taking revenge for the cruelties and inhumanities their forebears were subjected to under slavery. My first feelings were that it was all too far-fetched, that these men would not be angry enough several generations on, and that their actions were too extreme. But each time I halted from the book and looked at the news, we were seeing pictures of race-related violence on the streets of Missouri, and that added a certain chilling possibility to the whole concept, and a feeling that, as a Brit, I can’t really know just how deep (or otherwise) the racial divide still is in the US. (That’s not to make any kind of smug point – we have our own race issues over here, too.)

There is some pretty graphic violence in the book, but it isn’t gratuitous. It is portrayed powerfully, but with a degree of restraint – it is clear that the author was trying to avoid being overly sensationalist in this regard, on the whole successfully. Martin is a very credible hero – we see him move gradually from feeling flattered by the attentions of these powerful men, to being confused and bemused, and finally to having to face some agonising moral dilemmas as he tries to work out what is the right thing to do. A modern, liberal, successful black man, he feels he’s moved on from the legacy of the past, but we see how close to the surface his sense of grievance still is in the hands of a clever manipulator, how easily he can be roused to anger and a desire for vengeance. It’s not only Martin’s life that is in danger, but his character – his own sense of who he is and who he should be.

Dwayne Alexander Smith
Dwayne Alexander Smith

There were some flaws in the book. It took a little too long to get going, and I continued to feel that these successful men wouldn’t have been so easily influenced by the somewhat simplistic spoutings of old Dr Kasim. I also felt the portrayal of the wives was somewhat old-fashioned, with most of them appearing to care only about manicures and hairdos, and which restaurant they would lunch in. (But maybe rich men really do still marry trophy brides!) But these flaws were minor in comparison to the strength of the main thrust of the story and in the second-half of the book, Smith built the tension very skilfully towards an explosive thriller ending. A layered book that kept me struggling throughout with the same moral questions as Martin had to face and finally left me feeling uncomfortable, as the author surely intended. One of the best thrillers of the year for me, and undoubtedly the most thought-provoking.

Thanks again to Raven Crime Reads, whose excellent review persuaded me to read this book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber & Faber.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

27 thoughts on “Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

  1. FictionFan – You’re now the second trustworthy blog buddy who’s recommended this one to me. And it does sound like very much worth the read. I’m glad that the overall impression you got was good enough for you to forgive the imperfections.

  2. That does sound like a difficult book to get through. One of my friends, who is of African descent, and I had a talk one day that helped me understand better. They are still fighting for equal rights here in the states. It just happened to explode in Missouri this time.

    • I think most western nations have race problems to one degree or another – ours tend to be related to the aftereffects of empire rather than slavery, but it still blows up now and again…

  3. What an interesting review. This isn’t a book I’d ever just pick up but your review has piqued my interest. Like you I think it is hard to understand the racial tensions in another setting but that isn’t to say we don’t know they exist. I’m tempted!

    • Thank you! That’s what happened to me – I’d decided against the book till I read Raven’s review and realised it was actually much more interesting than the blurb made it sound…

  4. I like his hair!

    So…how were the murders committed? Swords, knives? Just curious about that.

    (You know, I must say, at first, I thought that was the White House on the front of the book. I’m dull, you see. Or maybe it is… Nah.)

  5. Glad you liked it! I agree – despite some flaws it’s an amazing premise and a really thought-provoking thriller and there sure aren’t enough of those around.

    • Yes, I though he handled the subject really well – it could so easily have tipped over into sensationalism or some kind of rant, but he kept it feeling all too possible…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 🙂

  6. The Civil War is still being fought by some Southerners in the U.S. And race is still a huge issue. It’s quite interesting to see the author using men from the upper crusty class to tell the story, because their success doesn’t insulate them from their history. I don’t know that I would add this to my already teetering TBR pile, but it does sound like a good read. Nice review!

  7. One of the things that the Summer School made me appreciate is that the problems of the past are still being worked out today. One look at the Middle East can only convince us of that.

    • Yes, when I was reading your post just after posting my own, I was wondering if it’s only really now that mainstream literature is beginning to address the subject of the after-effects of slavery. Or maybe I’ve just become more aware of it…

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