A More Perfect Union - Tammye Huf Review
by Elizabeth Burrell
Tammye Huf’s A More Perfect Union tells the story of two lovers from different worlds and their struggle to be together. The narrative begins in the Irish countryside where the people are starving and frequently rendered homeless by cruel English landlords – famine is rife in the area and Henry O’Toole takes a chance on a boat headed to America. Faced with an unexpected level of discrimination against his Irish heritage, Henry takes a new name and heads south to find work as a blacksmith: “My father’d rather see me use a borrowed name than follow him to an early grave.”
We meet Sarah as she is dragged up to an auction block, torn from her mother and brother, and sold to a new master. One night, during a storm, Sarah and Henry take shelter under the same tree and she is startled by how he treats her – like a person, not property. Soon enough, they fall for one another – stealing kisses by the river and in the coach house, they defy the law, both social and constitutional. But life is not so kind, especially then, and they have to fight for their love, no matter the cost. But A More Perfect Union is much more than a tale of a forbidden romance.
As a Black woman of African and Caribbean heritage, reading novels about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade has always made me feel slightly uneasy. For a long time, I avoided slave narratives in fiction and film because I didn’t know how to process the emotional pain. Time and time again I have heard people wield the suffering of the Irish indentured servants during the Great Famine of 1845–1849 to invalidate the significance of slavery, so I was intrigued by Tammye Huf’s interracial romance between a white Irishman and a Black slave woman, based on her great-great-grandparents’ own love story. Huf describes each struggle with equal attentiveness and neither is brushed off as insignificant. However, as Huf’s heroine so aptly puts it, “Starving ain’t the only dying we know about… I know you’ve been though a hard, hungry life… I want you to understand that slave suffering is a different thing. When somebody owns you, there ain’t nothing they can’t do to you.”
Their romance is beautiful, often tied to the bountiful landscape – “If bluebells made a sound, it would be her laugh”. The couple’s dedication to their love drives the narrative; Henry will stop at nothing to be with Sarah and she endures the heavy backlash from her community. Ostracised for associating with a white man, she is branded a whore and rejected by those she calls family. Of whom, Red, Bessie and Maple make up just a few – each have their own stories, desires and motivations that Huf dips into seamlessly. This is a wholly immersive story, brought to life by Tammye Huf’s visceral imagery. I actually read it in a day – my life in 21st century South London just didn’t feel as vivid and colourful as the sights and smells of the Virginian countryside. As well as bringing love and hope to the narrative, their relationship reminds us that these ‘slaves’ were people with their own hopes, dreams and desires – it is important to remember that amidst the pain and suffering, there were moments of joy and triumph.
In between their stolen moments together, the hardships of living on a plantation are gruelling to say the least. I admired how the descriptions of violence weren’t especially graphic and didn’t feel gratuitous - slave narratives often utilise scenes of violence to ‘shock’ the reader - rather Tammye Huf skilfully conveys the cruelties of life as a slave through the emotional pain of her characters. In particular, I recall Henry’s disgust upon witnessing a whipping: “I’ve known starving days and fever nights and waking up next to dead kin, but I’ve never known this”. In particular, I felt deeply for Maple: Maple is the primary cook at Jubilee and is wracked with memories of her former plantation where her family still reside, her pain informing her actions and attitudes in the narrative. I felt her anguish as she watched the happy couple, unable to feel their joy as she is inwardly tormented by hellish past. I cried alongside her through the memories of abuse. However, she is one of the only main characters who does not have a resolution; others are given hope for the future, of another kind of conclusion to their personal journey and it leaves the reader feeling like she will continue to struggle amidst this perpetual torment.
It was also interesting to see elements of the political climate slip into the novel’s storyline – Sarah’s new slave master is a devout Christian, ensuring that his slaves observe a restful Sunday and refrain from ‘living in sin’. Towards the end of the novel Huf explores how southern slave owners hoped to rebuff northern abolitionist claims of barbaric treatment of slaves by running their plantations in a ‘good Christian manner’. The prevalence of Christianity during that time is something often overlooked in slave narratives, and Huf explores how Christian doctrine was twisted and perverted to suit a slave owner’s lifestyle.
This is definitely one of those stories that will make you feel deeply for things that didn’t happen to you: to cry at fictional misery, grieve an imaginary loss and cherish moments of a make-believe forbidden love. Along with the touching romance and theme of courage through strife, this book is a tear-jerker. Be ready with tissues and don’t forget to rehydrate. Tammye Huf is a talented writer, and I look forward to her future work.
Thank you to Myriad for the review copy. A More Perfect Union is available tomorrow, 14 October, in Hardback and eBook.