The shades of ownership in antebellum Louisiana
Cruelty and neglect define the relationships in “Property,” Valerie Martin’s latest novel, set in antebellum Louisiana. At the story’s center is Manon Gaudet, the petulant wife of a sugar plantation owner who has fathered a son with their young slave. This is a story in which sex equals violence, and affection of any kind is conspicuously absent -- between husband and wife, lover and mistress, mother and child. It’s a novel fraught with tension, desperation and rage, all masterfully sustained until the bitter conclusion.
That Manon despises the tedium of her own life is evident from the first three words of the novel (“It never ends”), uttered as she observes her unnamed husband humiliating some slave boys for his amusement.
From the start, Manon is a complex and fascinating character. Although angered by her husband’s routine abuse of the slaves, she fantasizes about their freedom, not because it would be the enlightened thing to do but because it would punish her husband and bring ruin to the plantation. Perversely, Manon almost envies the slaves, convinced that she is more of a prisoner in the household than they are; entirely self-centered, she views herself as a victim. Although the loathing is mutual in Manon’s marriage, her debt-ridden husband refuses to let her go; by law, a woman’s property is her husband’s, and Manon stands to inherit land and money from her mother.
Because Manon’s husband takes care to stay out of his wife’s way as much as possible, their household slave, Sarah, has to contend with Manon’s resentment much of the time. Manon is obsessed by the fact that Sarah -- whom she considers her “property,” as Sarah was a wedding gift from her aunt -- serves at the pleasure of her husband and is mother to his only heir.
Manon is also irritated by Sarah’s quiet dignity and intelligence. "[O]n those occasions when she bothers to speak, she makes sense,” Manon reluctantly admits. Sarah’s presence offers a twist on the conventional love triangle because she shares Manon’s hatred of her husband. Yet the women are not bonded by this; instead, there is an unspoken competition between them; Manon’s goal is to deprive her husband of Sarah’s presence whenever possible. And Sarah seems to savor her ability to unnerve both husband and wife in equal measure, keenly aware of her power over them.
When she leaves for a trip to New Orleans to visit her ailing mother, Manon deals her husband a “sure and devastating blow” by taking Sarah with her. “Nothing could have been more laughable than the touching scene of our departure,” Manon says. “The master bids farewell to his wife and servant, tremulous with the fear that one of them may not return. But which one? He wishes I might die of cholera, and fears that she may instead. I wish he might be killed while shooting rebellious [N]egroes. She wishes us both dead.”
Cruelty is so rampant in this novel that it extends even to Manon’s relationship with her mother. Manon’s visit with her brings out the nurturing side of neither. “Mother is not an easy patient, and I am certainly not constituted to enjoy nursing duties,” Manon reports. Her mother offers no consoling words about Manon’s unhappy marriage, instead blaming her for it: “I thought you would manage better than you have,” she tells Manon. “You neglect your duties and so you have no control in your own house.”
Although the characters in “Property” are people you wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with, reading about them is perversely pleasurable. Brutality is often more compelling than goodness; we can go back to Shakespeare to see that the villains tend to get the best lines. In “Property,” there are no good guys, however, so each of the characters is equally intriguing, observed from Manon’s skewed perspective.
Impressively, Martin, who has explored the master-servant dynamic in such novels as “Mary Reilly,” has created characters we don’t “identify” with but about whom we feel intensely curious. Yet “Property” offers more than fascinating character studies; also described are slave rebellions that terrorize white plantation owners in the region. And when the insurgent slaves go to Manon’s home, her life is irrevocably changed by the violence. It’s a terrifying scene, full of destructive, gruesome consequences. Instead of tragedy making her more compassionate, Manon is further hardened, and her fixation with Sarah reaches new heights.
Rendering Manon repugnant to the end is a brave choice, and it works. In every sense, “Property” is bold and uncompromising, providing an unflinching depiction of our nation’s most shameful historical chapter and insight into the unexpected forms oppression can take.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 200 pp., $23.95