In this meticulously researched and exquisitely deconstructed narrative, novelist and historian Stephen O’Connor views the life and work of the great American architect of personal liberty through the prism of his relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman he considered his rightful possession. This paradox strikes at the heart of our national identity, and while he doesn’t make it make sense, O’Connor does manage to define it in a way that seems plausible, empathetic, and almost but not quite complete.
The author fractures his story into a spectrum of different tales intertwined. A third person limited telling of the facts as we know them from the point of view of an intelligently-imagined Jefferson and a first person confession of identity and shame from Hemings are familiar devices of historical fiction done well. But what about the Jefferson who’s sitting in a contemporary movie theater with Dolly and James Madison, being driven mad by a lushly romantic biopic of his life and love for Sally? Or the Jefferson-like prisoner being tortured by a furious black female guard? Or the New York Jefferson on the subway pining for the Sally who’s ignoring him across the way? Or, strangest of all, the nameless narrator exploring a weird hellscape that seems to be the inside of a colossal Jefferson–the haunted house of the great man’s reputation? He finds another Jefferson and another Hemings here, two survivors of some unnamed apocalypse, clinging and traveling together.
I love this stuff–my favorite work in grad school was on the fractured narratives of writers like A.S. Byatt and Thomas Pynchon, and I’d rank this novel with the best of that style. It gets at a truth of Jefferson and, less successfully, of Hemings that no straightforward telling could.
But is it enough? As a work of literary art, I found this book really satisfying. As a story about people, not so much. O’Connor doesn’t solve the puzzle of Jefferson; that he can’t is kind of the point. But he does a great job of finding all the pieces.