By Valerie Martin
Completed June 8, 2008
“Well, let me think,” I said. “Would the fact that the servant I brought to the marriage has borne him a son, and that this creature is allowed to run loose in the house like a wild animal, would that be, in your view, sufficient cause for a wife to despise her husband?”
He shrugged. “Mrs. Gaudet, there are many such cases. This cannot be unknown to you.”
“That is precisely my grievance,” I explained. “That it is common.” (page 38)
What is property? Is it a tangible thing you own? Or could it be something else – a spirit, a soul, a sense of freedom? In her Orange Prize-winning novel, Property, Valerie Martin explored the essence of property, ownership and freedom, using slavery and antebellum marriage to examine these themes.
Manon Gaudet is a young wife in a loveless marriage to a bankrupt, cruel planter in 1828 Louisiana. As a wedding gift, Manon’s aunt gave her a young slave, Sarah, to accompany Manon to her new plantation home. Because of conventional marriage customs and rights of slavery, both women, in essence, become property to the same man. Sarah soon bore a son to Manon’s husband while Manon never reproduced. As time progressed, Manon’s hatred for her husband only equaled her disdain for her slave. She secretly wished for her husband’s death to free her from this entrapment.
Several things struck me as compelling in this book. First, Martin portrayed a historic look into the slave-holding South. It was not a time of wine and roses; times were harsh, the slavery system was immoral, and white and black Southerners lived in fear of each other. Each page of Property stayed true to these details.
Secondly, the relationship between Manon and Sarah was far from a sisterly one. While they were bound together by the same problem – ownership by the same man – they did not seek comfort from each other against their common plight. Furthermore, they did not see each other as rivals because they did not yearn for the man’s attention. Instead, they hated each other – perhaps because each was a reminder of the life in which each woman was forced to live.
Intelligent, engaging, historical and rivoting - Property kept me at the edge of my seat, and I completed this book in two sittings. Admittedly, if you put a hoop skirt on the main character, it usually captures my attention. However, this book provided so much more than hoop skirts – it was a gritty story about the power and destruction of when one human tries to control another. This is a must-read for readers who enjoy antebellum Southern fiction, women’s studies and stories about slavery. I will certainly be looking for more books by this gifted storyteller. ( )