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.