10faf7da8cbb005084bd1d086e119954Martin Grey, a smart, talented. young lawyer working out of a storefront in Queens, is taken under the wing of a secretive group made up of America’s most powerful, wealthy, and esteemed black men. He’s dazzled by what they have accomplished, and they seem to think he has the potential to be one of them They invite him for a weekend away from it all – no wives, no cell phones, no talk of business. But what he discovers, far from home, is a disturbing alternative reality which challenges his deepest convictions…

Although not ostensibly classified as a crime book, I was very keen to include this title as I believe that there are enough elements to fulfil the best of both genres; crime thriller and contemporary American fiction. Drawing on the theme of the continuing calls in present day America for some kind of reparation for the heinous period of American slavery, and the resonance of the falsely promised ‘forty acres and a mule’ for the emancipated slaves, Smith has constructed one of the most thought-provoking novels, with all the essential elements of a thriller, that it has been my pleasure to read for some time.

Martin Grey, a small time African American lawyer, wins a distinctly high profile court case up against a powerful and media savvy prosecution lawyer, Damon Darrell, finds himself quickly, yet mysteriously enfolded into Darrell’s immediate circle. This circle contains a small cabal of some of the most influential and successful black figures in society, and Martin, basking in the honour of being made an intimate of such a group, quickly forms an allegiance with them, despite certain misgivings when called upon to perform a strange act of initiation. Grey is then invited on a weekend of outdoor pursuits; a previous weekend of which resulted in the less than fully explained death of a former member of the group. As Martin witnesses the strange and disturbing events at the weekend retreat of ‘Forty Acres’, we, along with him, begin to bear witness to the twisted and insidiously violent events within its walls, all in the name of seeking vengeance for the sins of America’s past. Through the attempted manipulation of Martin by the cabal, and his refusal to simply see the issues raised in black and white (his name is Grey after all), he finds his highly developed moral barometer is increasingly threatened both mentally and physically…

This is not an easy read, being at times brutal and uncompromising in some of its more violent scenes. There is also an incredibly surprising and shocking reveal, as to the activities that take place within the grounds of the mysterious ‘Forty Acres’, that really pushes the morality issue to the fore. It is also a book that throws up a series of extremely troubling moral and ethical dilemmas, but at the same time steadfastly reminding the reader of the immoral period of slavery and the repercussions of this for generations of black Americans. I think this is most certainly a book that will leave readers with differing opinions and perceptions, and reading this as a white British person (with our own shady involvement in the slavery period) I would be interested to see how say, a white American or African American would perceive the issues raised. There were certainly periods of the book that challenged my own moral sense, and by taking some arguments to the most extreme degree, I found my views were increasingly in line with Martin’s as the book progressed. I think that the book was powerfully effective in highlighting the dangers of extreme beliefs whether they be affiliated with race, gender or religion, but equally how persecution of a particular group of exploited people is so easily ignored and not punished and can resonate through generations.

Smith keeps a tight rein on the build up of tension throughout, slowly accelerating the pace until the breathless denouement with Martin, and those closest to him, in imminent peril, so this more than qualifies the book as a compelling thriller. More importantly though, although not a comfortable read, the book consistently raises interesting and thorny issues in both its narrative and themes. I always enjoy books that challenge the complacency of any reader, and Forty Acres certainly achieves this. If, like me, you want a book that gets you talking, and results in differences of opinion, than this is certainly the book for you. I guarantee it will make you think, and stay in your head some time after you’ve read it. That’s the sign of a good book. Forty Acres more than fits the bill.

Forty Acres is published July 1st 2014

(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)

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