Sunday, 3 March 2013

Review: Property

Property (2003)
Valerie Martin
'If I am dead,' I said, 'it is because you have killed me.'
Property is a novel set in the deep South in the early nineteenth century. It tells the story of Manon Gaudet,  the unhappy wife of a boorish plantation owner. Manon is presented with a slave, Sarah, as a wedding gift by her family but Sarah ends up giving birth to two of Gaudet's children. This miserable domestic situation is played out against a backdrop of slave rebellions and vicious uprisings.
It is a very short novel, just covering 200 pages. But its brevity makes it all the more powerful as every word seems to be filled with emotion and chosen with particular care. It is a thoroughly miserable story but because of that quite believable. I think that is what has impressed me most, Valerie Martin hasn't tried to romanticise the story by sticking in the token white woman fighting for freedom for slaves. Every time it starts to head towards a semi-happy conclusion something else happens to make all the characters, Manon and Sarah particularly, totally miserable again. Manon is not a nice person. Her character is ridiculously ambiguous, just like every other character. Nothing is cut and dry in Property. All the characters are flawed and they all have moments of kindness and cruelty. But then that just makes them more real I think.
I think it is clever the way Valerie Martin has highlighted the fact that it wasn't just the slaves that were property, but women too. Manon is tied to her husband whether she likes it or not and she experiences quite how binding it is when she realises all her own money and property belongs not to her, but to her husband. Manon demonstrates a clear awareness of her situation and the latent sexism (and racism) in society. She also accepts it.
'It was the lie at the centre of everything, the great lie we all supported, tended, and worshipped as if our lives depended upon it, as if, should one person ever speak honestly, the world would crack open and send us all tumbling into a flaming pit. My future was as dark and small as Joel's was bright and wide, yet it was my duty to pretend I did not know it.'
I can see why it won the Orange Prize in 2003 and I really must ask myself why on earth I've not read it sooner. Massive fail on my behalf *bows head in very apologetic manner*.


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