James Robertson - Joseph Knight (2003)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Scots writers often mine the country's tumultuous history to make sense of contemporary concerns. With his bestselling debut novel The Fanatic, James Robertson became immediately established as a creator of gripping and innovative historical fiction, cementing this reputation with the rich, compelling Joseph Knight, which explored the thorny issue of race, as well as Scotland's guilty complicity in the forging of the British empire.
Following the Battle of Culloden, John Wedderburn is exiled to Jamaica where he thrives, along with countless of his compatriots, as a plantation owner. While abroad, he acquires a slave, Joseph Knight, whom he treats as a protégé, bringing the young man back to Scotland with him when he returns, 20 years older, to marry and restore the Wedderburn name to its former glory. Wedderburn has nursed Knight back to health from the near-fatal illness he contracted during the horrific sea journey and, on arriving home, extends an unprecedented benevolence towards the young man. His liberal attitude vanishes, however, when Knight absconds, and Wedderburn spends the next 24 years obsessively tracking what he perceives as his rightful property, a search that takes him from the family pile via the strikingly evoked cityscapes of Dundee and Edinburgh.
The novel jumps back and forward in time throughout, Robertson weaving real-life historical figures and events into his tale (James Boswell make an appearance in one memorably amusing set-piece). The author's skill at effortlessly meshing so many periods, settings and themes (racism, the bond between master and slave, the nature of empire building) is impressive, while the final section, in which the enigmatic Knight finally, passionately voices his determination to live out his days a free man, is especially powerful.
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