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"PROPERTY" by Valerie Martin
This is yet another gem I would never have found without Bookcrossing. I have never heard of the author or the book before and yet I found the novel very moving and quite disturbing too.
A BIT ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I know some people don't like this is a book review but I always want to know about the author and look up a bit about them either before or after reading the book so maybe others are like me.
Valerie Martin is American born in Missouri in 1948. This novel published in 2003 won the Orange prize that year and in 2012 The Observer named 'Property' as one of "The 10 best historical novels".
I didn't realise that she was also the author of 'Mary Reilly' which was adapted into a film of the same name in 1996 starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich.
The story is set in the Deep South of America in the early nineteenth century at the height of slave ownership. Valerie Martin through her novel looks at the idea of 'Property' and ownership. This is not a warm and cosy novel in any way. It is dark and uncomfortable and it is hard to feel any empathy at all even with the heroine of the piece.
According to Laura Miller writing for 'Salon' this" is a ferociously honest book attacking a subject that has long been wrapped in what her heroine calls "lies without end": race in America. So much ink has been spilled on the topic, and so much of it pabulum and equivocation, that you wouldn't think any writer could find a way to make it fresh or show you anything new, but Martin has. "Property" is the kind of novel that reminds you that literary fiction still has the power to take us where no other art form can, and that in doing so it can remake the way we understand ourselves."
MY FEEINGS ABOUT THE BOOK AND CHARACTERS
The lead character is Manon Gaudet and she is also the narrator. Manon is the daughter of a planter and also the wife of a Louisiana planter. She is beautiful and intelligent but stuck in a marriage of torment. Her husband is a cruel boring man who has no conversation and is more interested in the slave girl Sarah with whom he has two children. He also has rather nasty sexually cruel games he plays using the slaves for his enjoyment.
It would be easy to feel sympathy for Manon who is in a loveless tedious marriage to a bore with weird sexual preferences but she is also selfish and has absolutely no empathy with anyone else. She knows that her slave girl Sarah also hates her husband and yet cannot see that Sarah's position is actually far worse than her own. Sarah has no freedom, suffers loss of those she loves , is sexually abused daily and also suffers insults from Manon. It reminds us that people who suffer injustice are not necessarily any wiser or more compassionate towards others after the experience. Manon is intelligent but lacks any imagination as to what the life of the slaves might be. She does indeed think of them as property. And not feeling people at all.
Despite the fact that Manon is not at all likeable I found that I did have a sneaking admiration for her. She reminded me a little of Scarlett O Hara in that she is a lot tougher than she looks, she survives things that many would not survive today never mind as a Southern belle sheltered from any hardship. She is a victim of her time in that she cannot marry the person she does quite fancy and but has to marry a boring man who has sexual relations with slaves and who is also in control of any property she inherits too much to her fury.
Sarah is the slave girl given to Manon by her aunt when she got married because the aunt's husband found Sarah a temptation. Sarah has to suffer the indignity of being the sexual partner of choice of Manon's husband who she hates and has two children by him. The first appears to have rather severe disabilities but both have his red hair and eye colour just to rub salt in everyone's wounds as these serve to remind all in the house who is their father.
The husband who I can't even remember if we are told his name is unlikeable in every way but again is a product of his time and upbringing. We do get hints throughout the novel that Manon's father was a better plantation owner in managing his crops and was also kinder or fairer to his slaves. This kindness doesn't seem to have filtered through to Manon however. We only ever have Manon refer to him as 'my husband' with her disgust and loathing clearly being heard.
The book is written with little descriptive language and yet I was able to picture the scenes and people clearly. The author uses language carefully and nothing is in the book is written as padding. Manon herself is very dry and cynical in her humour. Her brother in law writes in a creeping letter "Dearest sister, you have been in my prayers every minute." "Do you pray so often?" she replies. Quips like these I loved and there are so many very clever comments that made me smile. She is like a more caustic Jane Austen heroine and Manon's intelligent use of language and caustic wit do make me warm to her just a little.
I do struggle a lot with the whole idea of slavery and the fact that one person can own another just because they have a different colour skin. I have never found racism easy and having been brought up in countries with different nationalities I have always had friends of all colours and creeds . This novel did have some pretty gruesome scenes despite being sparing with descriptions it was pretty horrific, a bit like the way some horror films are worse because of what you don't actually seen, your own imagination and interpretation gives you a pretty vivid picture.
I found this a very interesting book. It was disturbing, yet at times I did find myself smiling. At times I felt for Manon while on the next page I thought how vile and self centred she was. This was not an easy read because of the subject matter and the very hard to like characters. I didn't even warm to any of the slaves either and it is hard to enjoy a book with no likable characters and yet I really did find this book grabbed my attention. I wanted to give most of the characters a darn good slap but still I was drawn into their world of unrest and discomfort.
This is a very different read and deserves it award in my view. According to Ahdaf Soueif, Chair of the Judges for the Orange prize:
"The story is told through an unsympathetic narrator, yet the book is utterly clear about what its moral heart is. This is terribly difficult thing for a writer to do. The gaps in the book, what is left unsaid, are very important.... there is not a sentence that shouldn't be there."
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