Poetic, powerfully visualized yet oppressive account of French settlement in Louisiana during the early 18th century.
Clark (The Nature of Monsters, 2007, etc.) exchanges swampy London for fetid North America in her intense, closely detailed, female-driven narrative exploring the dogged struggles for coexistence and survival by European and Native-American communities. Her protagonist is Elisabeth Savaret, one of the “casket girls” contracted by the French government to sail to the New World as brides for the colonists. Elisabeth is not one of the “chickens” (her dismissive name for the other women); an independent, fierce and intellectual loner, she has the good fortune both to love and desire the man she marries, Jean-Claude Babelon. But the couple’s happiness founders on his ruthless ambition and her failure to carry a pregnancy to term. Jean-Claude’s drive for riches, which involves slavery, gun-running and betrayal, results eventually in his murder. Auguste Guichard, who loves both Babelons, is the third major character. Deeply involved in his friends’ fates, he serves as the living antithesis of Jean-Claude’s proto-capitalism: Auguste learns the Native-American languages, appreciates their cultures and grows indigenous plants. Later, with Elisabeth and Auguste married to other settlers, their paths cross again, and guilt is declared and shared. After much suffering, there is still hope.
Although finely textured, this oblique, murkily downbeat tale often loses its thrust in the details.