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Any Known Blood

by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill’s outstanding second novel, Any Known Blood, is narrated by Langston Cane V – son of a white mother and black father, in his late 30s, recently divorced, and working in Toronto as speech writer for the Ontario Ministry of Wellness. After he’s fired for sabotaging a speech and landing the minister in hot water, Langston embarks on a genealogical journey into the worlds of the Langston Canes who came before him.

The Cane family has a rich history, with roots extending from Ontario to Virginia, where Langston’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery in 1828. Before Langston sets about his research, little is known about his ancestor except that he was rumoured to have died during abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Langston’s project takes him to Baltimore, where he uncovers the truth about his family in the archives of a boarded-up Negro college and the Harpers Ferry museum.

Any Known Blood is not without a few flaws. Hill occasionally spoils the cadence of a paragraph or a dialogue by ending with an intrusive sentence, and a few passages – like Langston Cane III’s letters from France during the Great War, and even the first Langston’s narrative at the novel’s climax – don’t quite capture the language of the period. Sometimes they even contain anachronistic word choices; a writer in 1877, for example, would never have written, “I can say that I never had that kind of sex with any other woman in my life. We humped in the morning, we humped in the afternoon, and we humped at night. We humped on weekends…”

These awkward moments are few and forgivable, however, and they are all that prevent Any Known Blood from being a first-rate novel. Hill’s narrative is consistently compelling and readable and his characters are wonderfully drawn, particularly the spirited Mill Cane and Aberdeen Williams, a longtime friend of the family. In addition, Hill’s ability to take historical events and characters and bring them to life in fiction lends a richness to the work and grounds it in tradition. (Even the surname Cane echoes the title of Jean Toomer’s 1923 work of fiction, a classic of the Harlem Renaissance.)

In writing a novel where race and slavery play such a large part, it’s no small accomplishment for an author to avoid peopling it with stereotypes, caricatures, and martyrs. There is none of that here; rather, the history of the Canes is one of perseverance and weakness, of moral triumphs and cowardice. In other words, it’s the history of humanity.


Reviewer: Dan Bortolotti

Publisher: HarperCollins


Price: $28

Page Count: 491 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-224567-1

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-9

Categories: Fiction: Novels