The epic journey of a former South Carolina slave into the heart of Revolutionary Ireland.
‘An ambitious and vital novel with an epic sweep. This book is an act of salvage.’ Hilary Mantel
Seventeen years. We were together for seventeen years. I knew him like a Brother.
In a London graveyard in 1857, Miss Harriet Small is approached by a stranger with an intriguing gift for her. In the last will of a woman she barely remembers, Harriet has been left a collection of long-lost papers: her father’s True Narrative of his years after escaping enslavement in America, and his close relationship with Irish revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
Nearly sixty years earlier, in the aftermath of Edward’s death and disgrace in the 1798 Rebellion, his sister, Lady Lucy, commissioned Harriet’s father, Mr Anthony Small, to write about his life as Edward’s manservant in the form of a ‘slave narrative’. But what emerges from Faithful Tony’s pages is Lucy’s real motive (revealed in her notes and deletions) to restore Edward’s reputation and his family’s fortunes, as well as a complex, co-dependent and sometimes turbulent allyship between the two men. Tony gains opportunities to work, to prosper, to love, only to be powerless in preventing the devastating events that destroy his master. He learns that the quest to be truly heard is never-ending, and as heartbreaking as it is to read her father’s words, Harriet comes to realise there is more than one way to be free.
Inspired by true events, from war in South Carolina to the genteel drawing rooms of Kildare, from the colonial politics of London to the intrigue and simmering resentments of Dublin, Words to Shape My Name imagines the powerful story that Tony Small might have told, one of hope, failure, resilience and an unbreakable bond.
Praise for Words to Shape My Name:
An ambitious and vital novel with an epic sweep: a complex, timely story about liberty, equality, identity. With acute intelligence, Laura McKenna has focused on a marginalised figure who is a unique witness to events that make nations. No longer at the margin, Tony Small is now the centre of his own story. This book is an act of salvage, performed with great skill: cleanly written, sharp-eyed, undeceived.
— HILARY MANTEL
Laura McKenna’s first novel is a deeply intelligent mosaic about the nature of freedom and the lineage of hope. Words to Shape My Name unspools a complex story in a daring and ambitious style reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor and Hilary Mantel. By turns demanding, lucid and poignant, it sets out to unravel the mysteries of belonging. McKenna’s debut is the song of a writer who is here to stay.
— COLUM MCCANN
Beautifully written and brilliantly controlled, this story of friendship and courage never drops a stitch. Words to Shape My Name intrigues from start to finish and has to be among the very best of novels in 2021.
— CHRISTINE DWYER HICKEY
A sophisticated novel, abundant with competing voices, bringing the rich, raw revolutionary world of the late 18th century to life. Laura McKenna writes with elegance and wit. Words to Shape My Name is as accomplished as Mantel, as humane as Heaney.
— MARY MORRISSY
A powerful historical fiction debut.
— JOSEPH O’CONNOR
Arresting and absorbing from start to finish, a remarkable debut.
— EIBHEAR WALSHE