Review: My Name’s not Friday, by Jon Walter, published by David Fickling Books

My Name’s not Friday
by Jon Walter
David Fickling Books (out July 2015)

My Name’s not Friday begins with startling originality, narrated by a boy who believes he has been claimed by the Devil. From the narrowed perspective of his first appearance, blindfolded and bouncing, baggage-like, over the back of a mule, the book widens to encompass the enormous subject of slavery in a nuanced, involving story that breaks the reader’s heart, a little at a time.

Samuel is a free boy, literate, clever and devout, sold into slavery in the place of his brother, and now desperate to return to him. Finding himself robbed of his name, among slaves for the first time, he weighs up the morality of his new situation. Should he share his forbidden knowledge with the children – and the men and women – of the cabins? Should he teach them to read?

Gradually, he learns the ways of the plantation, and the whims on which so many lives depend. The owner Mrs Allen, her stepson Gerald, the pastor and elders of the town – all have total, unpredictable power, and may be gentle one day, savage the next. Driven by his painful, bright, searching faith, Samuel asks impossible questions about the workaday relationships between owner and owned.

How can there be friendship between master and slave? How can a boy who believes so passionately in God accept the cruelties perpetrated in his name? What is the worth of a life? As the Yankees creep closer, and the plantation owners grow crueller in response, Samuel weathers tragedy, disillusionment and appalling danger, without allowing his light to be extinguished.

This is a book that seizes you by the shirtfront, leads you by the hand, and slips a kindly little knife up under your ribs; original, subtle and demanding.