In my occasional–very occasional series of great commuter reads, here’s a book that I don’t think is in print in the States, but is well worth going on to to find. It’s by Philippa Gregory (who wrote The Other Boleyn Girl).

A Respectable Trade is about the lives of people caught up in the slave trade. It’s set in Bristol, one of the English cities whose wealth was built on the trade before business moved to Liverpool. The heroine, Frances, marries merchant Josiah Cole, who decides it’s time to move up in the world now he has a wife with social skills and connections–and also, because in his way, he cares about her and wants her to equal any other fine Bristol lady. And one of his plans to get rich is to import and train slaves for the English market. Frances realizes she can’t pretend to herself how her husband’s money is made, and can’t deny the slaves their humanity. It’s a book that is as harrowing and painful, and as full of ambiguities, as the period in history itself.

What Philippa Gregory does with her characters is astonishing. Even Josiah, the slave trader, is someone you can’t stop yourself feeling sorry for as you see him plunge toward total financial disaster, betrayed by the elite traders of Bristol from whom he so desperately craves acceptance. And Frances’ growing conscience and her awareness that her slaves are more than commodities or savages are wonderfully done.

It is, too, an amazing love story, although not a romance. One of the slaves Frances sets to train is Mehuru, formerly a priest in the African kingdom of Yaruba. Frances has just asked him how, in his country, a man would tell the woman he loved that she was beautiful:

“A man would tell her that he wanted her as his wife,” Mehuru said simply. “He would not tell her that she looked as well as another woman. What would that mean? He would not tell her that she was enjoyable–like a statue or a picture. He would tell her that he longed to lie with her. He would tell her that he would have no peace until she was in his arms, until she was beneath him, beside him, on top of him, until her mouth was his lake for drinking, and her body was his garden. Desire is not about ‘beauty,’ as if a woman as a work of art. Desire is about having a woman, because she can be as plain as an earthenware pot and still make you sick with longing for her.”

An amazing, thoughtful, moving book. Get hold of it.