This 1997 novel by Lawrence Hill absorbed my full attention until I had read the 5o5 pages. After that I read the two page acknowledments that Hill makes at the back - usually these are a few words to the front of the novel, then I turned to the front again, reread the blurb, read the endorsments made by critics, and looked to see if there was anything else to read. I read every word, including that the cover art is a detail from The Kiss, 1887 (oil canvas), by Theodore Jacques Ralli, courtesy of Getty Images. I found the novel quite a pleasure to read, you can tell.
The story centers around Langston Cane the Fifth who was born of a black father and a white mother, who is a little bit lost and who seeks to find his way by exploring the lives of the four Canes before him. What he finds isn't all glorious, but all sheds light on who he is and helps him to make peace with his father as well as himself, helps him find direction for his life, and in the process brings an estranged brother and sister together. That might sound pretty ordinary, but don't worry, the stories that achieve this are not. Hill takes you to the trenches of France in the second World War, you go to the underground railroad, to an encounter with the Klan, to a village in Mali. It's not all harrowing mind you; there are a few erotic scenes, plenty of humour, and lots of lively, interesting dialogue.
I like something that Mill says to Langston; "[forty] is young enough if you know where you're going". I am pushing forty myself and often feel pressed for time, but I do find that when I have a clear map and a time line in front of me, I feel a lot younger. Lots of other stuff resonated with me, like Langston calls himself a wretched athiest. I'm not an athiest, but I was wretched when I went along with christianityand I am just as wretched now that I have rejected most of it, and have no likelihood of ever becoming a Moslem, Hindu or Sikh.
Apparently, Any Known Blood takes its title from a phrase that would be known to most Americans and Canadians, but not to a West Indian of average education such as myself. But I am familiar with the idea that the slightest trace of black blood, no matter how far back it goes, makes any blonde-haired, blue-eyed person black. Aside from being entertaining, this novel is also obviously educational. For instance, it enabled me to attach greater significance to the name John Brown, which hitherto, had meant the same as John Doe to me. Actually, John Brown is to the United States what Cudjoe and Tacky are to Jamaica in the sense that the violent uprisings they led did not deal a final blow, but they helped paved the way to the abolition of slavery.
I have to mention something about the structure of the novel. It is layered so that the five Canes all get their stories told, this causes the novel to span 150 years. The story is not told chronologically; it shifts backward to one of the Langston Canes, then forward to the last who is the narrator, then backward again. Cane the Fifth tells the story Nathan Zuckerman style; he is a fictitious character writing the story of some other fictitious characters. The story is also told with the aid of letters and various documents like Y0-yo's opinion pieces and the record of a court proceeding. All of this shifting about, far from being confusing, helps to connect me to the fifth Langston, becuase he is in effect looking toward himself from several different perspectives.
Another fantastic read.