by Valerie Martin
The winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2003.
I read this at one sitting, continued late into the night and I would recommend other readers do the same. Although I have just put it down, I am ready to re-read Property and return to the horrible world Martin portrays. I suspect that Property is rather like the favourite film, which you can watch over and over, which is curious really since the setting is brutal and all the characters are flawed and repulsive.
The story begins in 1828. Manon Gaudet stands at the window of her home, a grand house on a sugar plantation in the Deep South. In a cool and dispassionate way, Manon watches through a spyglass a scene of sexual perversion and degradation. An overseer is brutalising a group of young, black slave boys. The scene is commonplace and remarkable only in the fact that the overseer is her own husband. Manon is deeply and desperately unhappily married and completely dissatisfied with her life. She misses her family and longs for the sociable, more sophisticated society of her old home in New Orleans. She also misses her father's affection and his more moderate attitudes, especially to slavery. Life on the plantation is nasty, brutish and short. The financial gain is inconsistent, life crude and uncertain, with a constant threat of slave uprisings and everywhere the iniquity of slavery is apparent. Manon is also isolated and friendless, loathing every aspect of her husband, his business and associates. For an independent - minded woman, raised to think for herself, it is an uncomfortable truth that she is merely her husband's property. Manon's strong character makes sure that she is as un-cooperative as possible and she keeps up her own attempt at resistance against his possession of her.
Manon is continually tormented by the presence of her slave girl Sarah, whose very existence as her own personal property is the proof that despite protests, she too is inextricably caught in the system and benefits directly from slavery. Manon is alternately fascinated and angered by Sarah, watching her with disgust and envy as Sarah feeds her new baby. Sarah's wild, disabled elder son Walter is another torment, seemingly sent by God to punish her. Walter is also the living proof of her husband's sexual transgression and abuse of Sarah. Manon remains childless.
Tensions are raised and life on the plantation takes a dramatic turn as inevitably slave rebellion and dreadful violence affects all of their lives. Manon steps outside her situation and questions the nature of possession and of property - human or otherwise. As she attempts to secure her own situation and create a better life, so she is able to assess how slavery, and this brutal system actually debases all parties involved.
This is a very powerful novel with an uncompromising message. Manon is an unsympathetic narrator and the other voices are all, without exception, repellent, bitter and unpleasant. These are not people I would ever wish to meet, but there is huge force in what they say. Reading Property is an affecting experience and their words linger in the mind for a long time. The real power of this book lies in how the reader is steered along, never left in any doubt as to the moral message or the inevitable conclusion that property of this kind can only corrupt.