Words to Shape My Name, by Laura McKenna, New Island, 368 pp, €16.95, ISBN: 978-1848407954
On September 8th, 1781, in Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, Tony Small, a runaway slave, hears a battle in the distance: “horses whinnying in high-pitched terror … and blast after blast of muskets and rifles”. After waiting some hours, he ventures closer and encounters dead bodies, “piled three or four deep”. As he is removing boots from the corpse of a soldier, he hears a sound: a voice, saying “please”. Pulling off dead bodies, he discovers a living one underneath. That man is Lord Edward FitzGerald. And so begins a lifelong friendship.
In 1999 the historian Stella Tillyard brought out a biography titled Citizen Lord: The Life of Edward Fitzgerald, Irish Revolutionary, which mentions the peripheral character of his valet, or personal assistant. We are also anticipating The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small, by Neil Jordan, due out with Lilliput. It seems that the character of Tony Small will be writ large on the Irish imagination in 2021, casting a new light on history.
Any historical fiction involves a pressure, a bearing down on the available facts, a mutation of sorts. What remains in the box? What escapes through the open flap? In Words to Shape My Name, we are left in the dark about Tony Small’s earlier life, his African origins and his experiences as a slave, although some elements leak through, as these disturbing memories are unlocked from a vault in his mind. But McKenna brings us into Small’s present world with sensory clarity and beauty.
After serving in the American War of Independence, Lord Edward takes Tony to Paris, where he meets figures involved in the French Revolution. Over the course of time, Tony is also witness to Edward’s various romantic attachments. The recoil from these entanglements is usually a trigger for Edward to seek adventures in distant lands, with Tony by his side.
While it is easy to see why Tony remains with the charismatic, wealthy, generous, fair-minded Edward, why does Edward choose to keep Tony around him?
Aside from gratitude for saving his life, Edward is impressed by Tony’s quick mind and discretion. “A wise man withholds his judgment,” he realises, when Tony is circumspect about giving his opinion. “Something I have yet to learn myself,” Edward tells him with charming humility. He is also struck by his loyalty. “Faithful Tony”, he calls him.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet asks, and this is a question that haunts Tony Small (whose name is not Tony at all, but that’s how Edward mis-heard the name Andoni, the tribe in Africa that Small believes he is from).
As a result of his encounters with revolutionaries in Paris, Edward renounces his aristocratic status and decides to fight for Irish independence, organising the insurrection that will lead to his incarceration and death. One senses that his awareness of Tony’s former life as a slave (and his observation of the scars and slave tattoo on his body, which he helps to remove) have prompted his urge to seek equality for all, even – to Tony’s amazement – for women.
One of the most significant results of their friendship is that Edward teaches Tony to read. Clearly very intelligent, he is a quick study and rapidly evolves his vocabulary, developing a voracious hunger for any books he can get his hands on. So begins the trajectory of his educational and political enlightenment.
McKenna is excellent at capturing the atmosphere of both location and era, in particular sounds and smells. On the battlefield in South Carolina: “the flies descended like a black mourning sheet” over “blasted faces, shattered limbs” in “such heat as would curdle milk in a pan or corrupt a cask of fish as soon as the lid was prised off”.
It is rare that I am so keenly aware of the olfactory sense as I am in this story. In Quebec, at the quays, we are drenched in the smells of “tar from the caulkers … rank blood from the slaughterhouse … congealed fat … stench of daily living in lower cramped quarters … the smell of beer … roast meat wafting from a doorway”. In his room below that of the pacing Lord Edward, Tony notices how “dust breathed from the ceiling timbers in sighing puffs”. For me, this vivid evocation of the senses and the arresting vitality of the language are the most significant pleasures of this book. Other well-evoked cities include New Orleans and Hamburg and, of course, Dublin.
The suspense in the latter part of the narrative is palpable, involving spies, disguises, duckings and weavings along the Liffey river. There are rebels, yeomen, redcoats, and gentlemen and ladies in their carriages, while the Dublin streets are throbbingly alive with hawkers, merchants, baskets of hens, kettles of fish and all manner and classes of people. Attracted by the egalitarian brotherhood of the members of the United Irishmen, Tony feels that, here at last, he can belong.
For anyone interested in Irish history, this is a rich, living, breathing story about what it was like to live through the tumultuous late seventeen hundreds, and an explosion of consciousness about the state of existence for many Irish at the time.
One author – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – has highlighted the dangers of the “single story”. Perhaps with this in mind, McKenna has interwoven several narrative voices: those of Tony and of his daughter Harriet Small, who, in 1857, discovers that she has been left a collection of papers: her father’s narrative of his life after escaping slavery, then working alongside FitzGerald. A feisty character, whose own personal trials are also described, Harriet’s earthy, working class voice is a surprise, considering her father’s acquired reading skills, education and eloquence. Nevertheless, her part of the story is spiced with vivid imagery: “I were as restless as an old hen before its neck were wrung.”
Another voice is that of FitzGerald’s sister, Lady Lucy, who commissioned Tony to write his life story in the form of a “slave narrative” in an attempt to re-establish her brother’s good name and get back his confiscated estate. The intrusions of Lady Lucy Fitzgerald – tempered by a further, third person perspective – offer differing perceptions of the events described.
In effect, this is a version of Tony’s story told by – and influenced by – the women (including McKenna herself) doing, or editing, the telling. In particular, Lady Lucy’s attempt to erase certain parts of the narrative and highlight others demonstrates the manner in which history is written, always with an eye to casting one side in a favourable light. In an interesting twist, this time, it is women who are influencing the narrative – the historic record – of a man, who is himself influencing the record of another man.
It requires a steely temperament and many talents to be an author of historical literary fiction: talents that include a musical ear for the vocabulary of a bygone era, intellect, psychological intuition and dedication to research. Add to that the risk of attracting accusations of cultural appropriation, and it’s a wonder that such a book has been achieved at all. It’s to our benefit that McKenna has pulled it off. Narrated with scruple and imaginative fearlessness, Words to Shape my Name is a rich, unforgettable book.
Afric McGlinchey’s most recent book is Invisible, Insane (SurVision). Ten of her poems were published by SurVision, in an anthology of surrealist poetry, Seeds of Gravity, in May 2020. www.africmcglinchey.com