It is said that truth is often stranger than fiction, but what happens when truth can only be found in the pages of fiction? Readers of Laila Lalami’s latest novel, The Moor’s Account, may find themselves asking exactly that question, as fact and fantasy coalesce in a masterful story that shines a new light on one of the darkest eras of history.

A sweeping saga that revisits the Spanish conquest of the New World in the 1500s, The Moor’s Account is told through the eyes of a Moroccan man named Mustafa, born as a Muslim and reborn as a Christian named Estebanico when he is sold into slavery. Stripped of his freedom, Estebanico travels far across the ocean in the service of the legendary Narváez expedition to seize the modern-day Gulf Coast—and all its incumbent riches—in the name of Spain. But in this foreign land, everything that can go wrong—from hostile Indians and debilitating disease—does. A mission bent on conquest soon turns into a desperate bid for survival, and Estebanico finds himself questioning who the savages really are and what it means to truly be free.

The backbone of Estebanico’s story is a brutal one that even the most disinterested history student will be familiar with. And yet, with Estebanico as the narrator and Lalami at the helm, the events take on such a deeply personal tone that it is all too easy to believe that The Moor’s Account is actually a long-lost memoir written from a shamefully overlooked perspective. Lalami spent more than four years dwelling in the murky excised portions of historical accounts to piece together this story, based on actual events. The compelling end result rings so true, it feels like one of history’s silent witnesses has finally been given back his voice. Whether you have a special interest in this period of history or not, Estebanico’s miraculous journey is not to be missed.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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