Actor Paterson Joseph’s debut novel, chronicling the life of the first Black man to vote in Britain, began life as a one-man play. It opens in 1775 with Charles Ignatius Sancho declaring his intent to revisit his diaries and set down his life for his son, Billy. Sancho is born and orphaned in 1729 on board a slave ship. On returning home, his master gifts the small boy to three maiden aunts in Greenwich, who treat him like a pet.
When Sancho is befriended by the Duke of Montagu, he is covertly taught to read and write. Sancho enjoys the duke’s benevolence until he is 20, but after his notebook is discovered by the sisters he is imprisoned in their cellar. A housemaid helps Sancho escape and thereafter he has to make his way in London alone. Life is hard, prejudice is rife and Sancho has to live by his wits, desperate to avoid the clutches of the notorious slave-catcher Jonathan Sills. Eventually he’s rescued from penury by the duke’s daughter, aided by Samuel Johnson.
Although Joseph has created an affable raconteur, he occasionally informs rather than involves the reader. For instance, when Sancho visits slums off Oxford Road, we’re told the urchins’ “childhood is so short-lived, not just through disease and early death, but because they will have to work from the age of seven or so to earn the money to feed their little stomachs”.
Part of the novel is taken up with correspondence between Sancho and Anne, his wife-to-be. Her letters recount her harrowing stay on two Caribbean slave plantations while nursing an aunt, but the epistolary form keeps us at a distance. Joseph is at his best when on familiar ground and the story ignites with his description of Sancho’s short-lived attempts to tread the boards as Othello. But while uneven, this fictional account of a real man’s life resonates with compassion and offers a welcome insight into the presence of Black people in Georgian England.
• The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply