The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay – review

Published by Picador

Publication date – 6 August 2020

Source – review copy

In The Lamplighter award-winning poet and Scottish Makar Jackie Kay takes us on a journey into the dark heart of Britain’s legacy in the slave trade.

First produced as a play, on the page it reads as a profound and tragic multi-layered poem. We watch as four women and one man tell the story of their lives through slavery, from the fort, to the slave ship, through the middle passage, following life on the plantations, charting the growth of the British city and the industrial revolution. Constance has witnessed the sale of her own child; Mary has been beaten to an inch of her life; Black Harriot has been forced to sell her body; and our lead, the Lamplighter, was sold twice into slavery from the ports in Bristol. Their different voices sing together in a rousing chorus that speaks to the experiences of all those brutalised by slavery, and lifts in the end to a soaring and powerful conclusion.

Stirring, impassioned and deeply affecting, The Lamplighter remains as essential today as the day it was first performed. This is an essential work by one of our most beloved writers.

The scene opens. Four women, chained. In four powerful voices, they tell of their history, of being captured from home as a child and shipped to the other side of the world. Of being sold. Of being used. Of escape and recapture. And of the faint hope of freedom. The Lamplighter illuminates the dark history of the slave trade.

The world of the four women is a bleak one, reminiscences of childhood homes juxtapose the opening setting of a dungeon. My emotions went from pity to shame, from red hot rage to a sly glee when mention is made of small acts of rebellion and retribution against the slave owner.

At 112 pages, there may be few pages but what is contained within them is powerful, impacting, poetic and heart-wrenching. The Lamplighter was originally a radio play. The book is in such a format, with scene directions and characters names beside the speech. It is therefore even easier to envisage the scenes that see the women discussing their fate. I could hear the waves lashing against the fort that held them when they first arrived. I could conjure up images of sugar cane fields and plantations, see plantation owners wives reclining whilst sipping tea. The women themselves were faceless, blurred outlines which represented how they were seen by those who “owned” them.

The Lamplighter tells an intimate tale of the four voice we hear, but their story is not unique to them. They represent every slave, every child of a slave, just as those slave owners represent every one of their kind. The reader finds out more about the history of the slave trade. There are references to street names derived from the slave trade, of ledgers detailing lost ‘cargo’, the written detail of the deaths of men, women and children seen only as commodities.

The fact that this book is still needed today is a damning indictment on the human race. That people are still judged by the colour of their skin, by their religion or caste, in 2020 shows that, whilst we as a species may have developed apace from the time slavery was legal, we still have far to travel. There will be those who say that the past is just that. That the world is aware of slavery and so there is no need to discuss it, to teach it, to mention it. But if it isn’t discussed, if it isn’t brought into the light then it will never be truly acknowledged and understood. If we can’t learn from our shared past, then we will never be able to have a shared future.

As the blurb says, this is an essential work. It is a powerful, damning indictment of the cruel and inhuman way white people imposed their will on all people. Sadly, it is as relevant today as it ever was. A book that should be studied and discussed.

Highly recommended.

About the Author

Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh. She is the third modern Makar, the Scottish poet laureate. A poet, novelist and writer of short stories, she has enjoyed great acclaim for her work for both adults and children. Her first novel Trumpet won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. She is also the author of three collections of stories with Picador, Why Don’t You Stop TalkingWish I Was Here, and Reality, Reality; two poetry collections, Fiere and Bantam; and her memoir, Red Dust Road. She is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and divides her time between Glasgow and Manchester, where she is currently Chancellor of the University of Salford.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. This sounds so powerful. I’ve really enjoyed Jackie Kay’s writing that I’ve read (Trumpet, Red Dust Road) and I must pick her up again.


  2. Sounds like a remarkable powerful and relevant work. A reminder to me that I must read Kay.


  3. JacquiWine says:

    Thanks for this review, Janet. I must try something by Jackie Kay at some point, particularly as her work seems so relevant to the current sociopolitical climate. A powerful work indeed…


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