Book Review - River Sing Me Home

The inspiration for Eleanor Shearer’s debut was a footnote in an exhibition about emancipation. It described how the children of enslaved women in the Caribbean were stolen and sold. On liberation, many mothers went in search of their fractured families.

River Sing Me Home opens in Barbados in 1834. The British have decreed an end to slavery but in reality little has changed; the enslaved people on the plantation will become “apprentices” for the next six years. “Freedom was just another name for the life they had always lived.” Desperate to find her five surviving children, Rachel flees.

Her search takes her first to Bridgetown, where her mute daughter, Mary Grace, works for a seamstress. They travel to British Guiana to discover the fate of Rachel’s two sons, Micah and Thomas Augustus. In Trinidad, they track downRachel never mentions her children’s paternity, but the reason becomes clear towards the end of the book, when she considers her daughter’s pregnancy: “It was one thing to carry a child inside you… fearing that it would come out looking like someone you loathed… it was worse to carry a child wondering if it would come out looking like someone you loved, now dead and gone for ever.”

Rachel is well drawn, someone we can root for, but her all-consuming quest means Shearer’s other characters are less nuanced. Mary Grace accompanies Rachel for most of her journey. We are told early on that she never “spoke again after the night the overseer ambushed her in the fields”. Beyond this detail, we learn little about her.

The harsh world of slavery is the backdrop, but the heart of the novel lies in its celebration of motherhood and female resilience. This is a tender exploration of one woman’s courage in the face of unbelievable cruelty. The possibility that Rachel will lose everything she has fought so hard for immerses us in her plight.

Originally published by The Observer