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How Far We’ve Come

Authored by Joyce Efia Harmer
Published by Simon & Schuster Ltd

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Joyce Efia Harmer’s novel begins on a slave plantation in Barbados in 1834. Ironically, perhaps, it is a place called ‘Unity’. Overseer Leahy makes 17-year-old Obah’s life a misery. Injustice lies all around. Even Mistress Frida, whom Obah believes to be kind, ‘hit me once with the back of her hairbrush’. Brutality is visceral in Harmer’s descriptions of beatings and punishments.

One day, as Obah begs and pleads not to be sold (better the devil you know), a white face looks on from the trees. The face belongs to Jacob, a time-traveller from the future, who promises to transport Obah from the cruel existence at Unity.

Jacob is as good as his word, but the place he takes Obah to is Somerset, England, in the present day. There, Obah has plenty to learn. The modern world is bewildering: music, technology, school, medicine – each far removed from Obah’s experience. The contemporary narrative revolves around a rally to pull down the statue of a former slaver, drawing parallels with the real-life news story of the statue of Edward Colston in 2020.

It becomes clear that Jacob and Obah’s meeting isn’t accidental. Inevitably, the past informs the present. Obah soon feels the need to return home and help the struggle for emancipation, understanding the role she must play back on the plantation. The novel documents a fight for social justice across communities separated by nearly 200 years. Operating both literally and metaphorically, the title is perhaps also intended to be ironic.

How Far We’ve Come is a complex narrative that deals with a difficult subject in an engaging and challenging way. It will particularly appeal to KS4 readers who enjoy historical fiction, but keen KS3 readers and fans of time-travel will also enjoy Obah and Jacob’s adventures.

Longlisted for the Branford Boase Award 2024