My third book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel is a solidly entertaining, straight-down-the-line work of historical fiction by Laila Lalami. I was unimpressed by Lalami’s first novel, so I was not enthusiastic about reading this, but it’s a much better book than her first and offers much of what I enjoy about historical fiction while avoiding most of the missteps that get on my nerves.
The subject of The Moor’s Account is the ill-fated 1527 Narváez expedition in which a group of Spanish explorers and set out to establish colonies in Florida. Only four men from the expedition of around 300 survived. One of these survivors was an enslaved African known as Estevanico, and this novel is his version of events. I knew nothing about this particular expedition, so I can’t speak to what Lalami got right or wrong, but I can attest to her having written an exciting story of exploration and survival.
In her author’s note, Lalami says that her version of Esteban is entirely fictional. She gives him a history in Morocco in which he himself was a slave trader known as Mustafa al-Zamori. It was starvation and fear for his family’s future that led him to sell himself into slavery and eventually into the hands of Dorantes, an explorer bound for Florida. The early chapters of the novel alternate between Mustafa’s back story and his journey through the New World. Eventually, the story settles into Mustafa’s account of his travels, which includes encounters with multiple American Indian tribes, periods of starvation and sickness, and bewildering dilemmas as the explorers become more and more lost and must determine what to do.
I was impressed at how Lalami was able to show the colonists’ serious misdeeds without turning them into monsters. These men bring violence, greed, and disease with them. As an outsider, Mustafa sees their wrongdoing but is powerless to intercede as they rape and pillage their way across North America. Still, when there are only a handful of men left, and they are starving and hoping to figure out a way home, it’s hard not to hope along with them. I rooted against them and for them and against them again. And while Mustafa is at times a shade more modern than I might expect, he doesn’t feel like a 21st-century man planted into the 16th century. The book doesn’t take a superior attitude toward its historical subjects, and I appreciate that. It shows us their atrocities but doesn’t preach about how vile those atrocities were. It trusts readers to see it.
Although I enjoyed this book a lot and would recommend it to anyone who likes exploration and survival narratives, it’s not the kind of book I’d expect to see on the Booker list. As entertaining as it is, it doesn’t do much that’s particularly original or new, other than offering an enslaved narrator whose perspective on the venture will, of course, be different from that of the free men he’s with. Watching Mustafa’s role shift over time as the group dwindles and his enslaved status becomes less relevant is interesting, I suppose, but it’s not unpredictable.
Still, even though this isn’t in what I’d consider the absolute top tier of historical fiction, I’m glad to have read it, and I look forward to seeing what the others on the shadow panel think.