Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave A True History
review by Maryom
At first sight this may seem a slightly strange and out of the way book to review but a while ago I read a blog post at Iris on Books about it. Although I was aware of Aphra Behn as a 17th century female playwright, I didn't realise she'd also written novels - so my curiosity was roused.
Oroonoko is an African prince who falls in love with a beautiful young girl, Imoinda but is separated from her by the King, who forces her to join his harem. When even this fails to quench their love, Imoinda is sentenced to death, but secretly sold into slavery. Meanwhile, Oroonoko himself is captured, transported to Surinam as a slave and, surprise, surprise, finds his true love again! Here he's treated as an almost equal by his 'owners' but this fails to satisfy him and he plans his escape.
As with a lot of the early novels, it's told as a 'true history' which the author allegedly heard from the hero himself. Although it held my attention, Oroonoko, like a lot of early fiction, is a story to read more for curiosity than entertainment. It doesn't have the scope and depth that we would expect from a modern novella. It's certainly short - which I'd sort of expected, but of 100 pages in the book, 77 pages comprise the actual story - there are 20 pages of notes at the back and 40 pages of introduction to Aphra Behn, her life, her work, the political context etc. - all helpful if you're studying 17th century fiction no doubt. Aphra Behn's attitude to slavery was rather puzzling and variable - sometimes she accepts it as part of the normal course of things, at others she opposes it. It certainly came over that it was fine for 'commoners' to be sold into slavery, but not royalty!
A good read for anyone with an interest in the development of the novel or historical attitudes toward the slave trade. Not one I'd recommend to the casual reader though.
Publisher - Penguin Classics
Genre - adult fiction
Buy Oroonoko (Penguin Classics) from Amazon