Book Review: James // Percival Everett

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“White people try to tell us that everything will be just fine when we go to heaven. My question is, will they be there? If so, I might make other arrangements.”

A profound companion to Mark Twain’s culture-defining novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), James flips the script on Huck’s boyish adventure and original perception of Jim. A corrective lens on American history through the eyes of a runaway slave in 19th century Missouri, the novel is a thrilling retelling of an age-old classic. Jim is autonomous in his knowledge as he secretly learns to read and write, seeking education despite the risk of a lynching. There is extreme power and poignancy within the portrayal of Jim and his complex duality.

I found the survivalist code switching amongst Jim and the other slaves central to his character development, as we quickly learn of the intricate false persona devised to pacify white people. We also learn not only of his extensive vocabulary but internal dialogues with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and John Locke. If one is familiar with Twain’s novel, it is clear that Everett has provided a much-needed alternate perspective from those enslaved that was not offered in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

The somewhat sardonic companionship between Jim and Huck is soothed with genuine care for one another yet, even though Huck struggles to understand, Jim is acutely aware of their social misalignment and thus eventuate polarised destinies—despite their symbiotic relationship. There are many scenes where the power imbalance between a white boy and an enslaved man is omnipresent to Jim even in their solitude together.

Everett also hones in on both the weight and futility of language, and I especially sought importance from the scene whereby a man who claims to not believe in slavery pays two-hundred dollars for Jim, demanding work and establishing a position of power. This satirical exploration of ownership emphasises the intricacy of language and default power of white people. It is not whether the white man says you are free, it is if he allows you to be free. It is evident freedom was a barren concept to black people, despite some states being ‘free states’ in the novel. 

In the same vein as Erasure (2001) and I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), James is a critical exploration of American culture and race, expertly delineated with both severity and satirical wit. The novel is constantly on the precipice of tragedy and triumph, brutality and loyalty, oppression and probity. Everett has a striking talent for depicting emotion, allowing the reader to resonate with Jim’s awakened anger that reflects his newfound agency. I found Jim’s narrative to be sublime in unearthing the layers of his situation and an aptly confronting reminder of America’s deeply rooted race issues. James is, in my opinion, the next literature staple. Despite not finding it “ferociously funny”, I was wholly invested in this soulful metamorphosis of Twain’s historic novel.

Words by Anna Farrer

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