A slave rebellion is about to erupt, and all one woman can think about is her failing marriage.
On a sugar plantation in Louisiana sometime before the Civil War, Manon Gaudet sulks about the house, unaware of the tensions building around her. As narrator of this latest from Martin (Salvation, 2001, etc.), Manon is a daring choice in that she’s little more than a petulant child and her racial attitudes aren’t what we would call enlightened, making her hardly someone to sympathize with. Not that she doesn’t have things to be upset about: Her husband is a brutal bore and she hasn’t had a child yet, which hasn’t kept her husband from having an illegitimate one with Sarah, Manon’s slave. Martin keeps daring the reader to empathize with Manon and the petticoat prison that the plantation society keeps her in (Manon says, when telling her aunt about a light-skinned slave who tried to escape dressed as a white man, “She has tasted a freedom you and I will never know”), but Manon’s quietly monstrous racial hatred is never far from view. There isn’t much in the way of plot in a novel that’s structured more like a dreamy narrative from Manon, something to pass a hot, windless night with. But the pages still fly by, never less than enthralling, thanks to Martin’s quick mastery of her setting. A brooding darkness hangs over everything—the casual violence toward the slaves, Manon’s poisonous and frightened rage, the rumors of rebellion bandied about by gossiping plantation owners who seem to find hunting for escaped slaves a welcome diversion from the drudgery of everyday life.
A nimble, enlightening and horrific story about the morally corrosive effects of slavery and one childish soul, locked in a cycle of permanent bitterness.