Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

3 Mins read

Here is a novel which has attracted attention for its plot twist which turns race relations and America’s colonial legacy on its head. The forty acres of the title refers to reparations promised, but not delivered, to the slaves emancipated after the American Civil War. The plot centres on this unpaid debt due to African Americans and certainly proves controversial. However, does it make for a successful read?

Martin Grey is a young lawyer from Queens, New York working with his partner to build up the practice. A conscientious African American, he has dedicated part of his practice to civil rights work, and unexpectedly it is about to pay of in a way which changes Martin’s life for ever.

To everyone’s surprise Martin wins his class action suit against a large corporation for racial discrimination. The evidence was always clear, but the defendants were represented by celebrity lawyer Damon Darrell, a flamboyant courthouse operator with a record of winning the big cases. In the end, Martin’s low-key approach persuades the jury and the successful verdict means a big push to his career. Things improve even further when Darrell drops by his office with an offer of dinner for Martin and his wife at one of his famous shindigs. Rather than berate Martin for a lucky victory, it seems as if Darrell sees something of his younger self in Martin and wants to mentor him as he has other young black men.

At the party Martin and his wife mingle with a range of rich black entrepreneurs, and whilst they feel that they stand out a little, they can’t help being excited for what the future holds. With the connections these men can provide, Martin’s business should flourish, and an invitation to attend a weekend getaway with some of the guys should provide another opportunity to network.

Martin has been promised a weekend of white-water rafting in the countryside surrounding Seattle and the men will be flying there on Darrell’s private charter jet. However, things start badly after Martin’s wife had spots an article saying a previous attendee died when his canoe was submerged. Martin notices the men are acting a little strange around him, perhaps they are even a little suspicious of him, and he senses that somehow this is a final test which he must pass before being truly accepted into the group.

What Martin interprets as understandable caution on the behalf of rich and prominent men who don’t want to be embarrassed by association turns out to be something very different. The men feel they owe their success to a Dr Kasim, an elderly, charismatic African-American guru whose theory is that his ethnic group is held back by what he calls the ‘black noise’, a subconscious inferiority complex with it’s roots in slavery. His solution is Forty Acres, a secret complex where old roles have been reversed. There, the black man is the master of white men and women – the descendents of old slave owners – who have been abducted off the streets to pay a historical blood debt. From their arrival at Forty Acres, they will live as slaves, either as servants or in the gold mine, or to be raped and beaten with no hope of escape.

To Martin’s emerging horror, he discovers that the offer of the weekend away was just a ruse, and that Martin has been taken to Forty Acres to join the club. The idea is naturally repugnant to him, but the isolation of the camp, its illegal nature, and the fact nobody knows where he really is brings home the danger he is in should he decline. These powerful men cannot afford to have their secret exposed. For Martin, it is going to be a weekend where he knows any action that betrays his real feelings could get himself killed.

Ultimately, the success or failure of a book with plot as audacious (or should that be preposterous?) as this depends upon how able the reader is able to accept the concept. I found myself increasingly unable to engage with it, as each new reveal tested my credulity further. I simply can’t believe that such a facility could exist in this modern age, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book. Perhaps it could have been saved with some great writing but the prose is strictly by the numbers, as are the characters – the ambitious but civic-minded lawyer battling with his conscience, the embittered old man unable to move on from the past, etc.

In the final analysis, there is little to enjoy in this book, and too much that causes annoyance.

Faber & Faber Crime

CFL Rating: 2 Stars

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