Words to Shape My Name
Based on real-life events, this book starts when an elderly woman, Harriet Small, is given a memoir written nearly sixty years earlier by her father, Tony. In his earlier life, he’d been the long-time manservant of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, an Irish revolutionary who died during the 1798 Rebellion.
Tony originally met Edward when he was fleeing enslavement in America. He came across him on a battlefield and saved the young Lieutenant’s life, who then employed Tony until Edward was killed. After his death, Edward’s sister Lucy asks Tony to write a memoir in the style of a “slave narrative”, hoping that Tony’s story would help build sympathy, not for Tony or for other enslaved or formerly enslaved people, but for her brother, whose reputation she is hoping to restore.
The “True Narrative” Tony writes is littered with her criticisms, asking him to hide his opinions and whitewash her brother. Frustrated, Tony starts to write another version so that we have both the “official” account and his private views.
This is a complex novel, both in structure and the themes it explores. Lucy is thoughtlessly exploitative, focussed only on her own griefs. Her disregard of Tony on many levels – exploiting his illness and financial dependency, his history as an enslaved person, his emotional connection to Edward and his desire to tell the truth – is excruciating to read. But Tony is a resilient and fascinating character, and his relationship with Edward is multifaceted, bound as they are by ties of mutual obligation, separated by their backgrounds, yet both searching for freedom in its many forms. It is a book about loyalty and manipulation; lofty ideals and the weaknesses of those who proclaim them. It is ambitious in scope and structure, yet that does not detract from its emotional impact.