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Slaves to the past

By a historical quirk of fate, the first slaves to toil in the sugar plantations of Barbados were not Africans, but Scots.

Chris Dolan has made a documentary about them, which has already found its way to YouTube, for the Irish TV channel TG4, but their lives were also the inspiration for Dolan's latest novel, a gripping piece of work in its own right.

It tells their story through the eyes of Elspeth Baillie, who is performing in her family troupe to small audiences around Scotland when she is noticed by a certain Lord Coak, who promises her a glittering future in his theatre in Barbados if she'll recite The Lady Of The Lake for him naked.

Elspeth needs little persuasion. She's delighted "to push that damned, wet, disappointing land away from her". And, to begin with, in Barbados she finds everything she hoped for. She can re-invent herself, indulge in stimulating discussion "emancipated from the dull Scotch addiction to common sense and gravity". She even finds she's walking taller because she doesn't have to lean into the wind and rain.

Nevertheless, it's wind and rain that prove to be the undoing of her theatrical ambitions. After an apocalyptic storm ravages the island, she seeks refuge at Lord Coak's isolated estate. From that point on, Elspeth is inextricably connected with the daily goings-on and eventual decline (not a spoiler – it's spelt out in the introduction) of the plantation.

Named Roseneythe in a misspelt homage to its white workers' origins, it's almost as hermetically sealed off as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo. In the outside world, slavery has been abolished and Barbados is rebuilding itself after the storm. But inside Roseneythe's gates, Captain Shaw, the estate's factor and an early 19th-century eugenicist, is still perfecting his racial breeding techniques.

"He knew how much of Whydah could be mixed with Congolese to produce a tall strong worker who yet was not rebellious & did not eat too much," Shaw writes admiringly of his mentor, and the factor extends those methods to his white workers, too, assessing the merits of mating Scottish Lowlanders with, say, Germans. But never, ever Africans. Those white workers who give birth after lying with a black man (and quite a few of them do) must suffer the consequences.

Thoroughly implicated in the system is Elspeth Baillie, now the lady of the manor in all but name, who wistfully contemplates the alternate life she could have been living, one which comes to her in blurred, fragmented dreams and physically manifests itself as an ache in her womb.

Dolan expertly captures the overpowering heat of the island and – Roseneythe being a hard place to live piously – the earthiness and resilience of the Scots women transplanted to another continent, never to see their homes again. And he's done it in beautiful, rich prose that evokes a place, a sense of time and the beat of Elspeth Baillie's heart.

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