Book review: Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Can it ever be right to seek long-overdue justice through violent revenge?

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Throw in the fact that the heinous crime was black slavery and it makes the question even more difficult to answer with an unequivocal ‘no.’

American screenwriter Dwayne Alexander Smith explores this moral conundrum in a scorching debut novel which turns on its head the whole concept of slavery and demands that we reconsider the rights and wrongs of seeking retribution for sins of the past.

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But Forty Acres is also a cracking thriller… it brims with tension and menace, packs in plenty of action and drama, and rounds off a powerful, fast-moving storyline with a spine-tingling dénouement.

A small civil rights lawsuit, alleging racial discrimination against a large tyre company, has turned into one of the biggest cases in the career of Martin Grey, a talented, black and up-and-coming young lawyer in New York.

When he unexpectedly wins the case – and a hefty pay packet for himself and his client – the last person he expects to see at his celebration party is the case’s opposing counsel Damon Darrell, the wealthy and most successful black lawyer in town.

Damon is impressed and invites Martin and his wife Anna to a celebrity dinner at his glittering home where the high-powered and influential guests are all black… and the staff are all white.

Martin is dazzled by what Damon and his friends have accomplished, and they seem to think he has the potential to be one of them. Before long, he has agreed to join them for a weekend away from it all but there must be no wives, no mobile phones and no talk of business.

But what he discovers, at a secret location called Forty Acres, named as a reminder of President Lincoln’s broken promise that all former slaves would receive 40 acres of land, is a disturbing alternative reality where black men rule and white men obey.

Dr Thaddeus Kasim – leader of what is effectively an extreme Afrocentric cult that harnesses age-old anger and aims to empower black men – claims to have a ‘mysterious therapy’ that will reignite their desire to achieve.

Initially stirred by persuasive arguments and the notion of centuries-old injustice, Martin starts to make some disturbing discoveries and finds himself not only challenged by ethical problems but also by a growing sense of unease and danger…

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Forty Acres is a serious novel about race, class and reparation but comes cleverly wrapped inside an intriguing, gripping and frequently chilling page-turner with all the hallmarks of a well-paced suspense thriller and the potential to be a big screen winner.

Martin Grey is a man at the edge of a moral precipice… and his journey to the heart of darkness, where he must make life-changing decisions about his own convictions and values, is littered with disturbing dilemmas and moral mazes.

An exciting, thought-provoking and impressive debut from an author to watch.

(Faber, paperback, £7.99)