cover image Song of Slaves in the Desert

Song of Slaves in the Desert

Alan Cheuse, Sourcebooks Landmark, $25.99 (528p) ISBN 978-1-4022-4299-1

Cheuse's busy follow-up to To Catch the Lightning reaches frantically in multiple directions but lacks a center of narrative gravity, resulting in a florid and off-kilter tale of slavery and forbidden love. Nathaniel Pereira, son of a New York Jewish merchant, gets dispatched to revive an uncle's South Carolina plantation, but his story is derailed by the interspersed accounts of several generations of women driven from slavery in Timbuktu to bondage in the United States. On a slave voyage, the brutality is as vivid as the prose is lurid ("What happened next, we can never truly know, unless we find ourselves forced into the immediate degradation sometimes suffered by the victim, usually female, when man turns beast and instinct—raw, foul, animal, devilish, destructive instinct—overpowers her"), and once the plantation slave Liza becomes an object of purplish desire for Nathaniel (a "tincture of desire now flavoring the spittle that we mingled in our mouths"), readers will realize that things cannot end well. After the convoluted story finds its way to a fiery conclusion, Cheuse tacks on a rushed and tidy resolution that undermines the novel's strongest feature: its depiction of the horrors of slavery. (Mar.)