...a colossal postmodern novel that’s often baffling, possibly offensive and frequently bizarre ... With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.
...a brave and wondrous dream of a novel that renders the fraught subject of their relationship a fascinating, complex and ultimately extremely addictive tale ... This reader suffered acute discomfort that the book's particular romantic partners are master and slave, but history's discomforts have their attractions all the same. Thomas Jefferson gives us a piercingly intimate view of two people's entanglement, one that I totally fell into, wanting only to learn more. These lovers are not cardboard cutouts but deeply, engagingly human.
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is a lengthy novel, but it hardly ever reads as one. Its chapters are clear, short and episodic, and O’Connor writes about slavery and intimacy with equal grace. His vision of romance in a society defined by division is wrenching, and proof that dreaming can expose reality better than any hard truth.
Ambitious doesn't begin to describe the scope of the project O'Connor undertook. And successful doesn't begin to describe the wildly imaginative techniques he used to realize his authorial goal ... What makes these literary gymnastics work is, in a word, talent ... O'Connor takes a risky stance, characterizing a multi-decade sexual relationship between a slave owner and a slave as anything other than rape. What justifies the risk is his insistence on using a full palette and tiny brushes to draw these characters, rejecting broad brush strokes in black and white.
Hemings is the novel’s outstanding character, eloquent and capable, morally exacting and self-aware, now overflowing with tenderness, now seething with hatred. Jefferson cuts a far more ambivalent figure, unmatched in intelligence but often paralyzed by guilt and reduced to nervous stammering. Most of all he’s capable of tremendous self-deception, which deepens as he grows old and attempts to bond with the children he has had with Hemings while at the same time refusing to recognize them publicly.
O’Connor could easily explore master-slave relations by presenting the Jefferson-Hemings 'relationship' merely through the lens of attacker and victim. It would be the safer route for a novel whose primary narrator is a black female slave, particularly when it has been authored by a white male in the 21st century. Instead, the Jefferson-Hemings 'relationship' is much more nuanced ... O’Connor compels us to look at both the ugliness in Jefferson’s hypocrisies and the hopelessness in Hemings’s resistance. We will always be outsiders from their story, just as we are outsiders from the experience of sexual assault until it happens to us.