SHORTLISTED for The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2021
‘An ambitious and vital novel with an epic sweep: a complex, timely story about liberty, equality, identity. […] This book is an act of salvage, performed with great skill: cleanly written, sharp-eyed, undeceived.’ – Hilary MantelÂ
In a London graveyard in 1857, Harriet Small is approached by a stranger, an unwanted intruder who insists that she hear him out . . . in the will of a woman she only barely remembers, Harriet has been left an unusual collection of papers: her father’s True Narrative of his life after escaping slavery and his journey into the heart of revolutionary Ireland.
Nearly sixty years earlier, in the aftermath of Lord Edward FitzGerald’s death and disgrace in the 1798 Rebellion, his sister, Lady Lucy, had commissioned Harriet’s father, Tony Small, to write about his life as Edward’s manservant in the form a ‘slave narrative’. But Lucy’s real motivation was to restore Edward’s reputation and her family’s fortune. What emerges from ‘Faithful’ Tony’s pages – at first unsure but later confident in his words – is a complex, co-dependent and sometimes turbulent friendship between the two men. Edward is everything Tony is not: beloved by a large family and carelessly sure of his privileged place in the world. With Edward, Tony hopes to begin a new life – to belong – only to find himself a stranger in a strange land who often comprehends better than his employer the racism, privilege and power that drive the inequalities of their time. As historical events gallop towards their devastating conclusion, Tony learns that the sacrifices to be free are never-ending. And as difficult and heartbreaking as it is to read her father’s story, Harriet comes to realise there is more than one way to be free.
From war in South Carolina to genteel drawing rooms in Kildare, from the discomfort and boredom of Antigua to the snow-covered nothingness of Canada, the slave-owning territories along the Mississippi to a printing house in Hamburg and the colonial politics of London to the intrigue and simmering resentments of Dublin, Words to Shape My Name is about hope, failure and resilience, an adventurous novel of great intelligence and awareness that will resonate today.