Lead Review (the Colour Line)

  • Book: The Colour Line
  • Location: Rome, United States (USA)
  • Author: Gregory Conti (Translator), Igiaba Scego, John Cullen (Translator)

Review Author: tripfiction



The Colour Line is an imaginative depiction of the real history of black women artists in mid to late nineteenth century America. The year is 1887 and Lafanu Brown is living in Rome when a kind stranger saves her from death by those protesting the massacre of Italian soldiers by their Ethiopian counterparts. Being part African, at that protest she was instantly viewed as the enemy. Lafanu and the stranger fall in love. When he proposes marriage, she decides first to give him a detailed account of her life.

Lafanu goes back to her childhood in a Native American settlement, how she was born to a Chippewa mother and a Haitian father, and then adopted by the do-gooding Bathsheba McKensie and taken to Salenius, Massachusetts. The struggles Lafanu faces, the horrors that confront her at an exclusive private school, the prejudices and racism – both overt and casual – and the kindnesses that see her eventual relocation to Rome to pursue her art are all depicted in fine, evocative detail. Many luscious paragraphs of Italy and Rome pepper this narrative along with the unfolding historical backdrop of the times.

Lafanu’s story is interspersed with a present-day narrative of an Italian art curator of Somali origin seeking to hold an exhibition of Lafanu Brown’s work. This narrative serves as a valuable juxtaposition while adding details to Lafanu’s story that would otherwise have been absent. The harrowing story of Leila’s cousin Binti who attempts to escape Somalia via the modern-day smuggler migration routes is an important reminder that humanity might have progressed along some lines but it has regressed along others.



I hesitate to describe The Colour Line as historical fiction when it is really a literary tour de force. The motif of slavery is explored throughout like a stone turned over and over in the author’s palm. Situating the United States’ story in the fictitious town of Salenius is a hat tip to scholar Sirpa Salenius and her research on American women artists who moved to Rome to find freedom and expression. Scego shifts the focus to black women and their unique struggle against both racism and sexism in a period of immense upheaval and change. Written with tremendous poise, The Colour Line is both a gripping and ultimately uplifting read, and a valuable contribution to the discourse of injustice, championing those who fight against it.

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