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A 19th-century bookbinder struggles with race and identity in ‘The Library Thief’

Cover of The Library Thief
Hanover Square Press

The examination of race and identity can be seen throughout literature, and increasingly today.

In her debut novel, “The Library Thief”, Kuchenga Shenjé explores these concepts — and the associated expectations that arise when society demands that every group be neatly categorized. Shenjé delves into the past in this work of historical fiction, posing inquiries about Black people’s lives in the Victorian era.

In this 19th-century English story, Florence, an ambitious bookbinder, is expelled from her family home by her harsh and unforgiving father for being with a young man.

Florence, a clever and savvy woman, persuades Lord Francis Belfield to let her stay at Rose Hall manor by promising to restore the priceless books in his library in time for an impending sale, assuring him that she is just as skilled as her father. Among Lord Belfield’s minimal staff, Florence stands out as an educated, liberal woman.

But Florence is not as polished as she wants her new acquaintances to believe. Being raised by a single father and not knowing her mother, whom she was told is dead, has fostered an emptiness in Florence she thought she could fill with books.

She’s adrift and feels unloved. This fragile foundation is fertile ground for the harrowing experiences Florence faces during her stay at the manor.

Florence arrives at Rose Hall to find that Lord Banfeild’s wife has died, and the new widower is beside himself with grief. Immediately, Florence finds herself in the middle of a tightly woven plot of family secrets and lies that conveniently shroud the lives of the upper class.

She becomes fixated on Lady Persephone’s death and starts investigating suspicious activities around it. During her investigation, she uncovers some dark Banfield family secrets, which include violence, abuse and “passing” family members. This journey of discovery forces Florence to confront her own identity and the mysteries surrounding her life.

Some characters in this novel intentionally or unintentionally pass as white because they find it easier than living as a Black person in Victorian England. While the topic of “passing” is frequently explored in literature set in the 1920s and 30s, Shenjé delves into what it means to be a Black person passing in the 19th century.

She explores this theme in multiple ways: One character completely abandons their family to live as a white man, another maintains contact with her family but uses her husband’s wealth and influence to hide in plain sight, and the third, and perhaps most intriguing, character lives as a white person without knowing they were actually Black.

Florence is uncertain about her own race, and she passionately advocates for the rights of Black people. She often becomes offended by the viewpoints of her friends, neighbors and even their pastor towards Black people.

Florence grew up in a white community and had limited interactions with Black people, other than through books until she met Lady Persephone’s lady’s maid — a beautiful, charming and highly educated Black woman.

“How could a whole sector of humanity once viewed as animals now be writing books and teaching universities and the like? We had been lied to,” she says after a particularly awful sermon propagating the inferiority of African people.

At times, Shenjé’s use of language attempting at inclusivity fails to achieve what appears to be the intended effect. The discussion of gender roles in a highly complex way seems forced and unrealistic. This is especially so when such language and philosophizing are attributed to certain characters in particular.

While “The Library Thief” doesn’t exactly break new ground when it comes to exploring issues of race and identity, it does have some entertaining elements.

Wesley is a standout character who should have received more attention. If a movie adaptation of the character were ever to happen, Patrick Walshe McBride would be an excellent choice to play the part.

Shenjé also did an fantastic job planting hints throughout the story that lead to the main character’s true identity. The best part of the book is the unexpected twist at the end that ties up the murder mystery. Kudos to Shenjé for that surprise ending.

Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian American book reviewer, arts & culture writer and editor.

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