Books & Literature

Book Review: James, by Percival Everett

HISTORICAL FICTION: James is an enthralling and ferociously funny novel that leaves an indelible mark, forcing us to see Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a wholly new and transformative light.

A fascinating reimagining of one of the undervalued characters of American literature, which asks more questions than it answers.

Feature image credit: Pan Macmillan Australia

Percival Everett is an author who has been gaining notoriety in the last few years for writing new literary takes on older properties. In the past, he limited himself to the Greek myths but more recently he has begun to explore contemporary American mythology. In James, Everett uses the enslaved Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to show the horrors of slavery and the lack of opposition within the antebellum South.

While this device has been employed to great effect in the past, from Flashman to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, from the beginning it is clear this is more than a behind-the-scenes retelling of the story. The opening scene, in which we see James allowing himself to be “tricked” by Huck and Tom Sawyer, we see Everett’s truth – James is not the dull-witted enslaved person the whites of the story see; James is an educated, articulate man whose body may be bought and sold but whose mind is free.

While early scenes progress much as in Huck Finn, Everett has introduced some changes. Gone is Twain’s St Petersburg, Missouri, of the 1840s, with the action taking place in Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain’s hometown), in 1861. It is hard to see why these changes were necessary, but possibly Everett wished to highlight the widening gap between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery states or to make the chance of freedom afforded by the imminent war more tantalising.

Everett’s story is powerful in its ability to be uncomfortable. James is a reader, an intellectual, who reads Judge Thatcher’s books but is forced to hide his interest and abilities (at one point, after being accused of stealing a book, James replies, “What I gone do wif a book?” to laughter from Miss Watson). Worse, however, is the realisation James has that the books he was stealing glances at — books of philosophy concerning the rights of man — define a man as something he is not. We see in James a man beset on all sides, denied freedom by a society in totality, by imbeciles around him and by great thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, and Kirkegaard.

James escapes upon hearing he is to be sold, and his adventure with Huckleberry Finn begins. Everett soon deviates from the well-known plot, separating James from Huck early on, and spending most of the book without him. James’ journey through the antebellum South becomes a hellish nightmare of freedom, capture and denial as he tries first to escape, then to make enough money to return and buy his wife and daughter. While this is compelling, it is in some ways a pity Everett did not stay closer to the plot of Huck Finn. The treatment of Jim in that book was miserable, and it would have been illuminating to see just what James would have thought about it all, in particular the chapters in which Jim was captured and locked up for several weeks while Huck and Tom dithered over his escape for no good reason.

In the end, the book bears only a passing similarity to Huck Finn, being a reimagining rather than a retelling. This allows Everett to show more of the South and the inhumane treatment of enslaved people, but it does rather beg the point of why Huckleberry Finn needed to be involved at all. Everett uses the authority figure of Judge Thatcher to good effect in the novel’s final scenes, but any old authority figure would have done the job. This may have been a choice by Everett to show the stark reality behind one of the great works of American fiction.

Ultimately, Everett’s vision of a man victimised by his society and struggling to keep his humanity is beautiful and compelling. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by DC White

The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: March 2024
RRP: $34.99

More News

To Top