The subject of The Devil is White is rather unnerving. We are fairly sure from the outset that a group of high minded idealists are going to find things tough going on an uninhibited island off the coast of West Africa in the 1790s. And so they do. And so we carry the fore-knowledge not of sudden disaster but gradual dissolution. However the joy of this excellent novel is not just a really engrossing subject but the effortless quality of the prose and the deftness of the plotting. It may be basic stuff to set scenes and introduce multiple characters and begin various interlocking plot-lines, but there are plenty of well regarded novelists who stumble at these tasks.
Palmer is absolutely marvellous as a prose writer. He handles the mechanics superbly and we are carried effortlessly into his narratives. And although the story is grim – reminding us of how appallingly self-destructive human nature can be – the overall experience is curiously positive. Death is, of course, inevitable but faith and love and loyalty are not, and so all the more powerful when they survive. The brutality of Europeans towards the continent of Africa is a background, but this is a subtle novel and it reminds us that a continent is actually the sum of its people, who have an intriguing habit of acting unpredictably, as people will. This is a very enjoyable piece of fiction and highly recommended.
By Jonathan Davidson
Catch William Palmer at Readers’ Afternoon at Birmingham Literature Festival on Saturday 5 October, 1-4pm.