Property by Valerie Martin
Nan A Talese/Doubleday, 1st edition, 2003
Genre: literary fiction, historical fiction
Set in the surreal heat of the antebellum South during a slave rebellion, Property takes the form of a dramatic monologue, bringing to the page a voice rarely heard in American fiction: the voice of a woman slave holder. Manon Gaudet is pretty and petulant, self-absorbed and bored. She has come to a sugar plantation north of New Orleans as a bride, bringing with her a prized piece of property, the young slave Sarah, only to see Sarah become her husband’s mistress and bear his child. As the whispers of a slave rebellion grow louder and more threatening, Manon speaks to us of her past and her present, her longings and dreams – an uncensored, pitch-perfect voice from the heart of moral darkness.
Property is riveting fiction, fast, richly plotted, shimmering with visual detail. It is also an invitation to re-examine the traditions of the Southern novel and the myth of the chivalrous South, and a haunting meditation on what Valerie Martin has called “the fantastic and constant perversity of the oppressor to feel victimized by the oppressed.”
Book Report: I stumbled acrost a description of Property somewhere on the Internets while at work late one night, and promptly requested it from the MCL.I was mildly surprised to discover the author was the same Valerie Martin as wrote Mary Reilly, a parallel novel I could never quite make up my mind on (though I have have read it more than once, which may be suggestive of something). It currently holds first place on my Overdue shelf, as I was unable to renew it due to hold, and refused to give it up till I’d written about it–no matter how long that might take. Was it worth the fines?
I’d say so. It’s a difficult book, in part because of the subject matter. Americans can be verra touchy on matters of race, particularly with reference to slavery. There is great temptation to ignore it, romanticize or whitewash it, and especially to deny the influence it still has over our societal constructs today. Unfortunately for historical fiction, these tendencies often manifest themselves in patently anachronistic behaviors and plot mechanisms (Alexandra Ripley’s trashariffic and callow New Orleans Legacy is an excellent example of this), and ultimately, certain eras have fallen out of fashion in much of genre fiction rather than address it. After all, it’s easier to equivocate and remain complacent than to address tough and unpleasant subjects. But in Property, Martin goes were many fear to tread, resulting in the second difficulty: the profoundly unlikeable protagonist. By no means do I hate, or even especially dislike Manon; in fact, I pity her for the ugliness of character that grows out of her world’s twisted views on humanity. And due to her unpleasantness and unreliability as a narratrix, I also pity both her rival, the slave Sarah, and her husband. Thankfully, Martin also avoids smugly comparing Manon and her world to our own, making it a brutally honest and visceral read.
Read also: The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, New Orleans Legacy by Alexandra Ripley, Rhett Butler’s People by Daniel Craig (the latter two are examples of what NOT to do with historical fiction)
Cover: Nice sepia tones and lettering. The bare woman’s shoulder with the title hovering over is vaguely suggestive of branding.
I was never allowed, as most planters’ children were, to play with the negro children on our farm. Father considered it a perverse practice that resulted in a coarsening of the master’s children and was the source of inappropriate expectations in the negroes, who must feel themselves the equals of their playmates. This familiarity could breed naught but contempt, Father maintained, and so I learned to make companions of my dolls.