Title: How Far We’ve Come
Author: Joyce Efia Harmer
Edition: Kindle ARC
Obah is a slave on a Barbados plantation in 1834. Jacob is a descendant of a slave-owning family, determined to atone for the crimes of his ancestors. When Jacob finds a way to time travel to Obah’s plantation, he seizes his chance to give her a life of freedom in present-day Somerset. But Jacob has underestimated Obah’s experiences on the plantation and the culture shock she encounters in twenty-first century England, and Obah has discovers that the two teenagers are more closely connected than she realised.
It’s an interesting premise for a story. Obah is a perfect protagonist to take on the injustices of life on the plantation, and to recognise the problems of present-day society from her unique viewpoint. She’s intelligent and determined, but she knows how to keep herself safe and obey the rules that govern her life, both in Barbados and in the UK.
The supporting characters, and Obah’s relationships with them, give the book its page-turning pace. In Barbados she works in the kitchens, and directly for the wife of the owner. Her mother escaped from the plantation when Obah was young, and Obah has built her own family among the slaves. With them, she finds warmth and community while she navigates constant danger from the owner and his overseer, and the whims of the owner’s wife and daughter. The author doesn’t romanticise life on the plantation, and the reader is not spared the horrific experiences Obah and her found family share. There is no gratuitous detail, but the matter-of-fact reactions of the slaves to their punishments and hardships is more heartbreaking than any over-dramatised anger or confrontation. The unending injustice and cruelty is harrowing to read.
In England, Obah slowly learns to trust Jacob and his mother and sister. It takes time for her to understand that she is not expected to work or take care of them, and to understand the expectations of modern-day society on her. She sees injustices that they, as a wealthy white family, do not, and it is this that drives the twenty-first century sections of the story.
There are all sorts of issues with writing a novel like this. Avoiding the White Saviour trope, and the obvious difficulties both characters will experience as they are displaced from their homes, feels extremely important to making this story work in 2023. Both characters learn about themselves, their societies, and their prejudices, and come to see the power Obah has over her life, if she can work out how to use it. I’m not completely convinced that the author has fully avoided all the issues with the setup, but the story structure is neat and the characters engaging. It definitely gives the reader plenty to think about.
How Far We’ve Come is published in paperback today! Thank you to the publisher for the ARC copy.
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YA review: How Far We’ve Come cross-posted to GoodReads.
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