This debut novel ambitiously shifts time and place to explore the subject of slavery. Obah is enslaved on the Unity plantation in Barbados. Harmer sets the scene vividly, conveying the sense of community among the slaves and appealing directly to readers’ senses and emotions in order to bring the surroundings-with all its dangers to life. This, combined with the use of Obah’s voice and her native patois plunges the reader into her world, a world we may think we know from history lessons, films and books but one which is microscopically recreated far more immediately here.
As Obah uses her instincts to try to carve a safer place for herself and her friends her story unfolds-her mother has left, the overseer is cruel but there are secret letters which she carries between him and the plantation owner’s wife, which give her a little respite. Every slave is simply seeking a way to survive, whatever the cost. The sudden appearance of a white man she does not know mystifies her but he has travelled through time with the aid of a silver pomander belonging to Obah’s mistress. He is motivated by the guilt of his family’s involvement in slavery to take Obah to the future, to a better life with his family. Overwhelmed by the relentless brutality of her life on the plantation, she finally consents.
She finds a world which is difficult to understand and a family who, although they are well-meaning, seem insubstantial when set against the friends she has left behind. She becomes aware that she now has no way of helping them to regain their freedom. When she is an innocent bystander during the toppling of the statue of the man who bought her she realises that she wants to return to the plantation for good, fight for freedom on her own terms and persuade her friends and relatives to do the same.
When she returns to the plantation the fight for freedom begins and at Obah’s insistence all stand together to defeat the owner, his family and his overseer and feel the ‘breath of our new hope’ which the victory has inspired. How Far We’ve Come is a timely reminder that if we combine the strength within us all we can better fight for those fundamental rights which we all believe in.