Friday, March 9, 2012

Property by Valerie Martin — 196 pgs

Manon Gaudet is the wife of a notoriously dissolute planter and slave owner whom she despises. As she navigates her pointless and angry days spent in the house with her servants, she becomes more and more enraged with one female servant in particular. This quiet and reserved slave named Rachel has been the target of her husband’s lustful intentions and has bore him two children. Though Manon has no respect or amiable feelings for her husband, his illicit affair is more than she can handle and causes her great embarrassment and florid outrage. A slave revolt causes Manon’s husband to ride out almost nightly with other landowners like himself, leaving his homestead unguarded, which has tragic and violent consequences one horrifying night. When it’s all over, Manon’s life has changed greatly, and though she’s free to move on, her hatred of Rachel keeps her trapped where she is, plotting a revenge unlike any other. As Manon nurtures the flames of her vengeance upon Rachel, her life becomes a shadow of what it once was, and secrets about her family come to light causing her to reevaluate everything she has ever known about herself. Will Manon succumb to the dark nature that is threatening to overtake her as she plans her torturous punishment for Rachel, or will the shreds of kindness and goodness that are slowly withering away inside her come bursting back to life? In this dark and penetrating novel set in late 1820s New Orleans, a wife and slaveholder becomes both the victim and instrument of a terrible violence that threatens to consume her and everyone around her.

Though this was a rather short book, it was very piercing. There was an undeniable beauty to the writing, but the story is one of racism, hatred and vengeance. In this bleak and terrible tale, the reader becomes deeply embedded in the psyche of a female slave owner who is just as much a piece of property as the slaves that surround her. In Manon, all the greed and injustice of slavery is made human and is personified by a woman whose frightening downward spiral into revenge makes her not only unusually cruel, but curiously unable to see beyond her own rage.

Manon is not living the life she had in mind for herself. As a child who was doted upon by her slave-owning father, Manon had been expecting a marriage in which she was not only cherished, but treated with respect and kindness as well. But this isn’t what she’s gotten. Manon is a wife in name only to a reprehensible man with little kindness and compassion in his heart. Though he allows Manon full control of the house and the indoor servants, he runs his plantation with an air of cruelty that extends to taking Rachel as a sort of concubine. It’s easy to see that Manon is repressed both emotionally and financially by her husband, and just when I was starting to be able to feel a modicum of sympathy for her, she began her cruel campaign against Rachel and her children. Manon has no other outlet for her anger, and soon a silent war of attrition is waged between the two women, who both hate the man that controls their lives.

When the news comes that slaves across New Orleans are banding together to take revenge upon their masters and escape into the wilds to create new lives, everyone is justifiably scared. Manon’s husband takes this opportunity to put on his arrogant swagger and hunt down these men and women with the utmost perseverance. It almost feels like a sport among the well-to-do gentlemen, but it’s a sport that has dangerous consequences. One night, things go terribly wrong, leaving Manon in a situation that is initially satisfying but soon becomes intolerable. Due to Rachel’s revenge upon her master and mistress on that fateful night, Manon is gripped by an unquenchable hatred for the slave who would be free. Manon is in a strange position. Though she’s financially in ruins, she finds peace and solace in her new personal circumstances. But through it all, a blinding hate for Rachel will melt away her positive traits, one by one.

The power of perception and appearances are strong things, and they are what ultimately sets Manon against Rachel. Though there’s no love lost between Manon and her husband, she cannot bear to live with the shame that he has taken Rachel as his lover, and is furious that he has had children with her. She is doubly inflamed that Rachel has escaped, and will go to heinous lengths to bring her back into slavery. One can see that Manon’s idea of personal revenge will finally break Rachel’s spirit, but for all that, it will never undo her husband’s injustices. In the conclusion of the book, Manon’s transformation into a monster is complete, and as Rachel once again becomes property, Manon throws off her chains and becomes a more cruel and exacting master than her husband ever was.

This was a difficult book to read, but one that I believe has a lot of merit when it comes to shedding light on the plight of women and slaves during the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a tale that is slick with hatred and revenge, and while it’s not uplifting, it certainly is eye-opening and tells a story that will be shocking to some and angering to all. A very turbulent and involving read. Recommended.

17 comments:

Wall-to-wall books said...

Wow, this book sounds really good!!!
Yeah I bet it would be a hard one to read. Good review!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Sounds very bleak!

Kaye said...

This one sounds heart breaking.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I'm going to add this one to my wish list. It sounds like a heavy but interesting read. Thanks for the great review!

Audra said...

Valerie Martin is always on my TBR because her books seem so provocative, well-written, and intriguing. This one especially so -- I'm adding it to the TBR on your recommendation. Thanks for reminding me of this one!

What made you pick it up?

nomadreader said...

I'm so glad you loved this one! I thought it was excellent and a worthy Orange Prize winnner. Your review really captures its beauty and pain.

Buried In Print said...

Piercing: that seems an apt choice for this novel. I remember being startled by its depth; for such a slim volume, it packs a powerful punch.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Before you joined our book club, we read a book called Cane River and took place in a similar time and location, but from the slaves' viewpoint. It seems like it was just an accepted practice that the owner slept with the female slaves and sired children. Interesting that this particular wife did not turn a blind eye like the others did.

Brooke said...

This one sounds excellent and I love a short novel that can trump massive volumes with its depth. Plus, I just really need some shorter fiction right now!

Suko said...

This does sound difficult to read, but worthwhile. Very> well-written review!

Jenners said...

It DOES sound difficult ane intense. You're on quite a roll there ... you need a little bit of light reading I think!

Darlene said...

I've never heard of this book before but it sure sounds like one I need to read. I've always liked reading books on women and slavery. I'll have to check into this one.

Jenny said...

It eems like there have been a lot of books lately about slaveowner's wives and a mistress slave. Very interesting dynamic. This book sounds intense!

Nymeth said...

This has been on my radar for a while, but I had kind of forgotten about it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention again! Like others said it sounds very sad, but I'd love to read it all the same.

Gavin said...

Like Nymeth, this one has been on my read later list for a while. Your review has me putting it on hold at the library.

Vasilly said...

What an amazing review! I think I'll read this book one day but not right now. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Amy said...

This sounds like a really difficult book to read, but also sounds really interesting. Thanks for the review.

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