Review: Property by Valerie Martin

Property [2003] – ★★★★

Louisiana, 1828. Manon Gaudet, the wife of a domineering owner of a sugar plantation, tells us about her life, at times recalling her past. Her husband rules the house and the plantation with an iron fist, signalling slave girl Sarah as his lover. However, their stable life is soon repeatedly threatened by slaves’ rebellions in their region, making both re-evaluate their life positions. Although the novel is uneven and the narrator is made intentionally unlikeable, Valerie Martin still wrote a chilling, eye-opening and interesting account of slavery and the meaning of ownership in the mid-nineteenth century US, not least because of her particular focus on the perspective of a slave-owner.

It never ends. I watched him though the spyglass to see what the game would be” [Martin, 2003: 3], begins the novel. The wife tells us how, while reading from the Scripture, her husband engages a number of slave boys under his command in humiliating water dips. What follows is a diary-like narration from the perspective of Manon Gaudet, as we get to know the situation inside their home and around the plantation, including Manon’s feelings on the people around her, especially her feelings regarding Sarah, her husband’s obsession. The author excels in describing the sheer horror on the plantation dressed up as “scenes of quiet domesticity”, and this makes for an unnerving read. Manon is constantly bored, and passes her time monitoring her husband’s erratic behaviour, while also occasionally making time to flirt with the family’s friend, handsome Joel.

Unlike such books as Twelve Years a Slave [1853] or The Underground Railroad [2016], where we heard from, and sympathised with, the actual black slaves, who either tried to escape and were hunted by ruthless slave catchers, or tried to come to terms with their situation, Valerie Martin decided in her book to show the viewpoint of one plantation owner’s wife. This is both the biggest attraction and the biggest weakness of the book, because some readers need their sympathetic narrators and they may be put off by Manon’s coldness and haughtiness. However, this was also precisely the point of the author. Subtly and cleverly, Martin could even be said to satirise the life of this wife on the plantation. Manon seems to seek our sympathy in her narrative, complaining of her loneliness and of her husband’s behaviour, but we also know that her loneliness and “marriage shackles” are nothing in comparison to the plight of her slaves. And, it is in this contrast that Martin makes her biggest and acutest point, as she contrasts Manon’s quest to be liberated from her husband with the quest of black people to live as free individuals. Manon seems to think only of herself, and, although she is convinced that her husband is a “villain”, she also feels indifference towards her slaves’ plight, people who have far more rights to protest their enslavement because they are living through a far greater hell than Manon: “my husband marvels at their savagery; I am more astonished by their boldness” [Martin, 2003: 58]. At another point, Manon talks about how she can get all of her inheritance without her husband touching any of it, while, in the same line, she also quite carelessly expresses sorrow that her mother’s old cook would not even fetch one hundred dollars at sales.

Slaves’ uprisings are not the only thing that worries the married, but childless couple on the plantation. Cholera and yellow fever ravage the area as well, and soon Manon is afraid for her mother who resides in populous New Orleans. She decides to briefly move there with Sarah. It is interesting to read about the complex psychological inter-relationship between Manon, her husband and Sarah, and in some quiet way, slave girl Sarah in the story becomes the symbol of black people’s inward resilience and fighting spirit. Despite being abused and mistreated, Sarah‘s often cool demeanour and compliance remain unshakeable, and behind her robotic expressions and gestures there hides a spirit of rebellion so many white people come to fear. Towards the end, the book becomes more of a southern plantation thriller, without giving much thought to the depth or themes it had established prior, and it finishes on an indeterminate note.

Valerie Martin relied on some real historical accounts in penning her book, such as on Slave Narratives (incorporating the real story of William and Ellen Craft), and the result is a lucid and entrancing account of a life on a sugar plantation in the 1820s from the perspective of a slave owner, emphasising the wilful blindness of the comfortably-seated owners.


11 thoughts on “Review: Property by Valerie Martin

  1. Thank you for sharing this very well written review! It sounds like an interesting book on a topic that needs to be discussed more. I particularly like how it’s from the perspective of the wife whose voice would otherwise be silent.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This one’s on my list, as I’m aiming to eventually read all of the past Women’s Prize (Orange Prize) winners, and this is one of the few titles I’ve been particularly curious to see whether it’s held up over time. It does sound like there’s plenty to appreciate here in the juxtaposition of the white woman wanting to be free from her husband while at the same time being blind to the greater lack of freedom experienced by those enslaved all around her, and that’s a brand of characterization I really like- when the reader sees something in the main character that they themselves can’t see. I’m also fascinated by unlikable narrators, so that’s a plus. Hopefully I’ll end up feeling as positively about this book as you do. Great review!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I hope you like this one! I also don’t have a problem with unlikable narrators and, actually, regarding Manon, I thought the author presented a very curious, mixed character palette of sympathy, ambiguity and negativity.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like an absolutely fascinating and unusual account of slavery and very different from other novels on this topic. I loved your indepth and nuanced review of it, you are a great writer yourself 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought this was such an interesting novel, which, as you say, plays with our ideas of protagonists having to be active and sympathetic – I read it during my project to read all the previous winners of the Women’s Prize, and it ended up being one of my favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

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