A tale of two sugar plantations on Barbados before and after the abolition of slavery.
In 1854, Emily Dawson and her cousin Adam arrive on the island of Barbados in the British West Indies, he to secure contracts for the family shipping company and she to take possession of Peverills, the plantation she unexpectedly inherited from their late grandfather, Jonathan Fenty. Fenty, once the bookkeeper at Peverills, had been a "Redleg"—the Barbadian term for poor whites—but then he had escaped to England and made his fortune. On arriving in Barbados, Emily and Adam meet their grandfather’s wealthy business associate, Mr. Turner (a former slave), and his nephew, Nathanial Braithwaite, a medical doctor, who will figure heavily in Emily’s future. During an uprising of enslaved people that led to emancipation in 1816, Peverills was burned down and has laid in ruins ever since. Beckles, the neighboring plantation, is run by the imperious Mrs. Davenant with the assistance of her grandson, George. The action shifts back and forth between 1812-1816 and 1854 as the tangled histories of the two plantations painstakingly emerge. In 1812, Charles Davenant, the older son lately returned from England, has inherited Peverills, much to the chagrin of his younger brother, Robert. Charles tries to mollify Robert by encouraging him to court Mary Anne, heiress to Beckles. Charles’ heart belongs to Mary Anne’s enslaved maid, Jenny, the mixed-race daughter of Mary Anne’s uncle. Jenny is torn between loving Charles and her struggle for freedom. Complications, rivalries, and plot points ensue, leading up to mysteries surrounding Emily’s lineage. Willig's (The English Wife, 2018, etc.) decision to alternate chapters between the two time periods, rather than adopt a more straightforward chronology, means that information about who’s who is withheld in a way that slackens the book's momentum. Characters of all races are fully fleshed out as Willig confronts the island’s complex racial dynamics, in particular the sexual exploitation of enslaved women and its consequences.
A deep dive into Caribbean history which requires, and ultimately rewards, close reading.