Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Ours by Phillip B Williams: Imparting of African folklore throughout novel feels restorative

Williams asks, despite it being ingrained in America’s values, what freedom really means in society built upon profits and legacy of slavery

Author: Phillip B Williams
ISBN-13: 978-1803510774
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £18.99

Phillip B Williams was a student when he originally submitted a story about a town for freed slaves called Ours to a competition. He didn’t win, but the judge, poet Crystal Wilkinson, reassured him of the story’s potential; she believed it had the makings of “something bigger”. Clearly, he needed little encouragement.

Rest assured, he’s won some prizes for his poetry since then (including a Whiting and American Book Award), but Ours is his near-600 page debut novel about that town. It’s 1830. Saint, a mystic and maverick, rescues an initial group of slaves from Arkansas. In doing so, she takes the plantation’s assets. She burns the receipts of the slaves, leads the people somewhere north of St Louis, Missouri, and gives the founding residents of Ours new names.

The reader will follow the development of Ours for the next 40 years (although it is framed by events in the modern day). Ours will contend with a host of tribulations, but there will be those who eventually question the remit of their saviour’s ways.

The novel’s mood is varied and the manipulation of it excellent

In asking what freedom means to the residents of this inexplicable town, Williams ultimately asks, despite it being ingrained in America’s values, what freedom really means in a society built upon the profits and legacy of slavery. Frequent images of hauntings, scars and wounds suggest Williams is dubious of the possibilities of healing from these inherited traumas and histories.


His mode to achieve this relies on the figurative. So while some of his prose is moving and evocative, other moments are weighed down by sentimentalism (there is an over-reliance, for instance, on the heart as a metaphor). When talking about psychic pain, sometimes it’s about not talking.

That’s not to say the novel is joyless or without hope. Far from it. The mood is varied and the manipulation of it excellent: watching Saint free people is almost rollicking; the imparting of African folklore throughout the narrative feels restorative. It’s a novel about generations and has ambition and verve. While a little uneven, it offers no easy answers to questions that dogged previous generations, but also ours too.