Set within a distant future where the world has been devastated by the effects of a third world war, The Record Keeper crafts a world that is far removed from our own, yet bears shocking similarity to our own past. Following the horrors of World War Three the remains of America have become home to three distinct classes of people, split by ethnicity. The English who hold the majority of power and have access to the best medicine and technology, the Clayskin who are treated like secondary citizens, and the Kongo, who are little more than slaves.
In this new world we follow the life of Arika Cobane, a Kongo woman who has been classed as a First Brother by the English. The English help to maintain their rule of their slaves by separating them into two categories, First Brothers and Second Brothers, who are divided by their physical appearance such as more Caucasian characteristics.
This separation of the Kongo people is used to find Record Keepers: those who get to inhabit the upper echelons, who are taken as children and taught by the English. Well educated and intelligent, the Record Keepers are used to keep a false history of their people; a system that is designed to keep the workers in check. This goes hand in hand with Rebirth, a medication administered to workers that erases pieces of their memory, keeping them docile and subservient.
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Over the course of her training as a Record Keeper, Arika begins to learn of a secret plot that could threaten the future of the Kongo people. As she tries to maintain her standing as the best student in her class, and fights to become a senator, she becomes drawn into a plot to spy upon one of her fellow students who may have a connection with a group of dangerous rebels.
What surprised me most about The Record Keeper was how much I actually disliked Arika for the majority of the story. She only cares about herself, her future, her aims, her advancement. Over the course of the book Arika begins to learn more about the plight of her fellow Kongo people and realises that she must care about other people, and that she will need to put her future at risk to do the right thing.
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Unfortunately, Arika seems to make a number of mistakes and keeps falling back into her old pattern of putting herself first, betraying those that have shown her trust, or running away from people that need her help. Despite these failings there’s something about her that draws you in, her desire to do better, to be a better person keeps you hooked, and it isn’t until close to the end that you realise why she keeps failing: because she’s a victim.
Despite her position of privilege, despite her education, Arika is little more than a slave herself, trained to be a certain way, beaten and abused to crush her spirit. This is what the book is about, how people are broken down and made into slaves to the white English, whether it’s through abuse, manipulation, or medical experimentation. All things that have been true in our own history.
I found The Record Keeper to be not just a story that reflects upon the racism that people have endured, historically and today, but a tale of rising up and overcoming the abuse that becomes ingrained within a person.
Sadly, it wasn’t until the very end of the book that Arika is able to overcome her own demons, to rise up herself, and this left me feeling somewhat deflated. I wanted more. I wanted to see her fight for herself and her people, to smash the system that had kept them down. Whilst Arika’s small moment of triumph of coming to find her own strength would have been a perfectly fine place to end this story, my desire to want more led me to ask Agnes Gomillion if this was indeed the end. Thankfully, the answer is that it is not, and that a second book, The Seed of Cain, will be coming in 2020.
As a standalone book, I would have rated The Record Keeper well, but as the first part in a story that has not yet been finished it becomes even better; a foundation for a story that is sure to grow in amazing ways; a story of survival, strength, and human spirit in the face of hatred and oppression.
The Record Keeper is available now, from Titan Books.