Sunday, April 25, 2010

Property by Valerie Martin


I avoided this book because of the disturbing subject matter: slavery in Louisiana in the early 19th century. But I decided to read it after I read The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, earlier this year. I knew that reading Property would erase any of the sweet taste that was left after reading The Help. If The Help was too light, or oversimplified, I knew that Property would not be. It would remind me of the horrors, in case I needed that.

Property is dark, violent and unflinching in its look at what slavery does to slaves and to slave owners. It is told from the point of view of Manon, a white woman who is almost as much the property of her autocratic husband as the slaves are. We also meet Manon’s maid Sarah, a young slave who is forced into a sexual relationship with Manon’s husband, and who has borne two children by him.

Manon is angry and self-absorbed. Sarah is trapped. As contemporary readers we might think that Manon and Sarah would ally themselves against a common enemy, Manon’s husband, but that is impossible. The great divide between slave and owner is too difficult to cross and neither woman can help the other.

Manon’s voice is distinctly contemporary without seeming anachronistic. You can’t like her but you can root for her. Sarah is more enigmatic. You can imagine what she wants but you can never really know her. Martin wisely chooses not to take us inside Sarah's head; she understands that there is no way as a 21st century woman that she can accurately reflect what it's like to be Sarah. This is what makes Property so much better than The Help, this lack of presumption on the author's part.

(Book 18, 2010)

8 comments:

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

Excellent review. I read this quite a while ago and thought it was quite disturbing, but fascinating as well.

Sarah Laurence said...

Excellent review of a fabulous book! I also loved the slave owner perspective even if I couldn’t like Manon. I adore the understated elegance of Martin’s writing. You are reminding me that I haven’t posted my review of this book and several others. I’m hopelessly behind.

Becky Holmes said...

Sarah, I want to read more of Martin's books. I have always meant to.

And I too am hopelessly behind. Just look at the six books in my "Currently Reading" list; I've really finished them all and need to write about them soon!

Sarah Laurence said...

My favorite of book by Martin was her short story collection, The Unfinished Novel. I enjoyed (and reviewed) The Confessions of Edward Day, a lighter read. I started but didn't finish Trespass because I couldn't relate to the mother who dislikes the ethnic girlfriend of her 20 something son. I would like to read more of her work too.

Marie-Therese said...

I loved Property - it's a novel about well, property, and it's also a novel about people's beliefs can deform them and can deform a whole society. You think about this for a long time after you've read it.

Anonymous said...

This review has encourage me to read property.

Anonymous said...

Very good book I say. Powerful, mind-boggling.
Am i weird for liking Manon? I felt sorry for her and I understood her pain. I wish Sarah escaped, and no-one ever found her.. hold tight Sarah.

Anonymous said...

LOL I've had to study this book for English A-levels.. a very interesting book to do an exam on, different.

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