Valerie Martin’s Property delivers an eerily mesmerizing inquiry into slavery’s venomous effects on the owner and the owned. The year is 1828, the setting a Louisiana sugar plantation where Manon Gaudet, pretty, bitterly intelligent, and monstrously self-absorbed, seethes under the dominion of her boorish husband. In particular his relationship with her slave Sarah, who is both his victim and his mistress.
Exploring the permutations of Manon’s own obsession with Sarah against the backdrop of an impending slave rebellion, Property unfolds with the speed and menace of heat lightning, casting a startling light from the past upon the assumptions we still make about the powerful and powerful.
This book is set in Louisiana, nearly 40 years before the Civil War. The title of the book has many layers of meaning: Manon Gaudet is the bitter and unhappy wife of a sugar plantation owner who is rapidly descending into bankruptcy; her house slave Sarah who was given to her as a wedding gift in part to get her out of Manon’s parent’s house; the house that is left to her on her mother’s death is scheduled to become her husband’s property, since everything belonging to a woman automatically becomes the property of her husband – she only gets to retain the house due to the death of her husband in a slave uprising.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Manon, and how she sees her life and the fact she has to put up with Sarah, who whilst a talented housekeeper and maid, is sullen, usually silent woman, and is the mother of two children via Manon’s husband.
Sarah escapes during the Slave revolt, leaving her older child behind. Manon has her run to ground and returned to service. There is little financial gain for this and the two women hate each other, but Manon refuses to suffer alone – she will ensure that Sarah lives with the consequences, even if it means belonging to a woman she hates and looking after her deaf, mixed race child.
Manon’s bitterness isn’t directed just at her slave and her husband, but at life in general – people around her don’t come up to the standards she has set for them or they die. Manon’s father died when Manon was young – for years she thought he was murdered, but she finally comes to the realisation that he committed suicide and was not the devoted father and husband that she thought he had been. She can’t even keep “hold” of her friend Joel, who fails to come through with a marriage proposal after Manon is widowed, instead marrying an uncouth but wealthy girl in order to live in town at a level he’s become used to.
The story does come to rather a bleak and sudden end. There is no redemption for any character here, there is no resolution to any issues; Manon seems to have learnt nothing from what has happened in the previous few months, and has condemned herself and those around her to bitterness and hatred in the years going forward. There seems to be some small softening towards Walter, the deaf bastard son, but that is more of a passive “doing nothing” rather than an active change in her behaviour.
About this author
Valerie Martin is the author of nine novels, including Trespass, Mary Reilly, Italian Fever, and Property, three collections of short fiction, and a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, titled Salvation. She has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as the Kafka Prize (for Mary Reilly) and Britain’s Orange Prize (for Property).