High school English was an interesting time for me. I have always enjoyed reading but I mainly read science fiction and fantasy at that time. Mainly science fiction, to be completely honest. Once I entered high school, I was forced to read a wider variety of genres and engage in more critical analysis. No longer could I just read a book–I had to analyze the symbols and crystalize my interpretation in written form. I didn’t much enjoy it at the time, but I will admit I am a better reader for the efforts of my English teachers. Moreover, I also understand better that certain books have a very niche audience. All Soul’s Rising is one of those books.
Bell is a very talented writer and I applaud him for exploring a subject often overlooked in English fiction. The Haitian Revolution had a profound impact on world history–try to list even five other slave revolts that led to permanent independence for an entire country–but it has yet to receive much attention in historical fiction circles. I picked up All Soul’s Rising specifically because I wanted to learn more about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the struggle to free Haiti from slavery, but I think that was a bit misguided on my part.
That’s not to say Bell dropped the ball when it came to research. I have only a cursory understanding of the Haitian Revolution but as far as I know, he didn’t include anything that would have scholars up in arms. He did, however, write his story in a way that the narrative will be accessible only to a select reading group.
Hardcore literary fiction fans will probably find much to enjoy in All Soul’s Rising. Bell clearly put a great deal of thought into every turn of phrase, and his poetic prose will undoubtedly appeal to English professors and professional linguists. I can recognize that Bell employs some really great literary devices in All Soul’s Rising, but I just didn’t understand what was going on for most of the story.
If I were given a test on the book, I would struggle to name a single character in the book besides Toussaint L’Ouverture and I knew about L’Ouverture long before I read the book. I can remember certain scenes very well, the scene where the aggrieved wife attacks her husband’s slave is very poignant and a great example of Bell’s skill with prose, but most of it went over my head. Some narratives were easier to understand the others and while I understood almost none of the chapters told from the perspective of L’Ouverture’s friend, I did understand some of the chapters told from the aggrieved wife’s perspective. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I retained much information about the book once I finished it.
Some of this deals with my own shortcomings as a reader. When I read Thurston and Morrison and Fitzgerald in class, I struggled to intuit the deeper meaning of their words on my own and had to rely on my English teachers for guidance. I think some of it also deals with Bell’s choices as a writer. For the most part, Bell doesn’t really write about documented incidents. Sure, the story recounts a few revolts and some skirmishes but the great battles and the high-stakes negotiations are given relatively little attention. Instead, Bell asks us to imagine how people from various walks of life might have experienced the Revolution. As a result, we get more a social history rather than a traditional history.
The drawback to this approach is that readers don’t have much to latch on to and I think it’s compounded by Bell’s choices as a writer. The protagonists think in broken English and their private musings don’t always follow a logical train of thought. Moreover, the characters tend to be isolated from the most important happenings of the Haitian Revolution. Not just in a physical sense. In a temporal sense also. Consequently, we learn a great deal about what a person in the late 1700s might have spent their time thinking about if their life was violently upended but we don’t learn much about what happened during the Haitian Revolution.
To some, this is appealing. It can be a great way to explore overlooked narratives. But I think it’s worth noting that some narratives offer more insight than others. Reading about people involved with the Normandy campaign–whether it’s because they clean the gear or because they determine the strategy—will probably teach me more about the event than reading about the family that hid themselves in an isolated cabin for the duration of the campaign. Both can be enjoyable reading experiences but if I spend all my time with that family and the story ends with family still in hiding and the family rarely interacts with anybody outside the cabin, the family hasn’t really given me new insight into the Normandy Campaign. Rather, I have gained new insight into what it’s like to spend a lot of time in a closed space with a small group of people isolated from the outside world. Much as I enjoy immersing myself in unfamiliar worlds, I read historical fiction because I like to read stories anchored in something tangible.
Ultimately, All Soul’s Rising is more about prose than plot and I struggled to enjoy it because prose is not enough for me. To enjoy a story, I need to understand the events of it or, at the very least, understand why those events matter. For the most part, I didn’t really know what was going on in All Soul’s Rising and pretty turns of phrase couldn’t make up for that.