cover image Feeding the Ghosts

Feeding the Ghosts

Fred D'Aguiar. Ecco Press, $23 (230pp) ISBN 978-0-88001-623-0

In his lyrical third novel, D'Aguiar (Whitbread Award winner for The Longest Memory) fictionalizes a horrifying incident that occurred in 1781. The Zong, a slave ship headed home to England, is packed to capacity with Africans. Shrewd and remote Captain Cunningham considers those 408 people chained below deck to be merely profitable cargo. But his first mate, Kelsal, has more ambivalent feelings about the captives because Africans once saved his life. When illness spreads among the slaves, Cunningham orders the crew to throw the sick overboard so the ship can collect insurance money for the loss. Mintah, an educated African who speaks English and who recognizes Kelsal from her days as one of his caregivers, stuns and frightens the crew with her heroic protests. Beaten and thrown into the sea, she manages to haul herself back onto the ship, where her influence both inspires and divides the remaining slaves. A trial is held upon the ship's arrival to determine liability for the 131 missing slaves. The crew is nearly absolved of responsibility until Mintah's journal is produced, which directly contradicts the crew's accounts. The final words belong to Mintah, whose first-person account of her life after the Zong is troubling and dramatic. D'Aguiar's spare prose starkly reveals the inner lives of Kelsal and Mintah and the crew members as they face the moral weight of this atrocity. D'Aguiar's imagery is haunting, his characters' thoughts complex and the mood darkly compelling. Comparisons to Amistad are inevitable, but D'Aguiar's accounting of the moral wages of the slave trade is a unique work of fiction that stands on its own merits. Agent, Bruce Hunter at David Higham Associates. (Jan.)