From the Publisher
“This fresh, unsentimental look at what slave-owning does to (and for) one's interior life must be a first. The writing—so prised and clean limbed—is a marvel.” —Toni Morrison
“Chilling…disturbing…intriguing. A compelling contest of wills between two women…against a chaotic backdrop of black night and leaping torchlight.” —The New York Times
“Sharply observer…. A strikingly unsentimental voice…. In fewer than 200 pages, Martin is able to summon up historical landscapes her readers have never seen.” —Newsday
“Quietly devastating…. Shows a dimension of American slavery that nonfiction could not get across…. A work of sustained irony…. As chilly and arresting a picture of slavery as you'll find anywhere.” —The Boston Globe
“It is possible that we have never heard a voice like this before… a timeless, chilling voice, eerily like the voice of the German people after the Holocaust… [With it] Valerie Martin opens a window on that evil of human nature that makes one group of people less than another.” —Winston-Salem Journal
“So riveting that once you start reading this slender novel, it's unlikely you'll put it down. A bitter, mesmerizing account of the caustic costs of slavery.” —Detroit Free Press
“Confirms that Martin is a vibrant force in American fiction… Martin uncovers the violent nature of slavery, ownership and property.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune
“A ferociously honest book [on] a subject long wrapped in 'lies without end': race in America.... Manon is a shadow sister to Scarlett O'Hara, offering [us] the unvarnished voice of her time…. [This is] fiction that can remake the way we understand ourselves.” —Salon
“Martin's explorations of character are unsparing as she reveals both Manon and Sarah in all their desperate humanity. A brave and riveting book.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“The real achievement is that Martin leaves us wondering what 'peculiar institutions' we are embracing in our own world.” —The News & Observer
“Brilliant… chilling clarity…Property is historical fiction that is both literary and literal in that it poetically bares a truth.” —New York Daily News
“Vivid and gripping. I read it in one gulp.” —Marilyn French
“Martin's writing is graceful, controlled and precise…The breadth of Martin's interests are remarkable. She moves around flawlessly in time and space: nothing frightens her.” —Fay Weldon
“As chilling and satisfying as anything she has written. . . . A fierce and uncompromising book, a bracing and cathartic work of art.” —Chicago Tribune
“In this stunningly powerful novel, Valerie Martin's gifts-a fearless originality and seemingly limitless perspective combined with a cool and elegant intelligence-are all on splendid display.” —Barbara Gowdy
“A wonderful novel, vivid, revealing.” —Carol Shields
“[Property] is a brilliant, chillingly revelatory piece of fiction, a work of craft, economy and such good merciless observation-one of those rare, crucial novels illuminating a history we think we know and understand so that after we've read it we'll never forget its truths.” —Ali Smith
“Tightly constructed [and] suspenseful. . . . Manon is a vividly presented voice, precociously cynical, mordantly amusing, despairing. . . . A subtly cadenced novel of racial and sexual transgressions.” —The New York Review of Books
“Fraught with tension, desperation, and rage, all masterfully sustained. . . . An unflinching depiction of our nation's most shameful historical chapter.” —Los Angeles Times
“Compelling. . . . A painful yet elegant study of . . . the authority of the mighty over the deprived. . . . Astonishing.” —The Washington Post
“Quick-paced and absorbing . . . chilling, understated and brilliant.” —The Miami Herald
“A fascinating little gem of darkness.” —San Francisco Chronicle
The Washington Post
Some of the scenes in the novel are so astonishing they would not work if Martin did not have such a fine and sure touch. Reading Property brings to mind the work of Kara Walker, the prodigious paper artist who makes sublime Victorian-style silhouettes depicting, with surreal detail, the monstrous and forcibly sensual ties between master and slave. — Yxta Maya Murray
The latest work from Martin, best known for her good-novel-turned-bad-movie, Mary Reilly, is an austere study of power disguised as a lush antebellum romance. Its heroine, Manon Gaudet, is the wife of the owner of a Louisiana sugar plantation; her sullen, beautiful slave, Sarah, is his mistress. In a mood of bitter mistrust, intensified by the estate's isolation, the three endure the worst that early-nineteenth-century America holds in store, including an epidemic of yellow fever and a violent slave rebellion. None of Martin's characters has the greatness of heart to feel for the others, and the reader's emotional attachment to the work is deliberately thwarted. Instead we see the power of the strong, as destroyers of life and moral order, and the power of the weak, as spoilers and irritants, combine to lay waste to all happiness.
The vivid imagination that allowed Martin to create Jekyll and Hyde's eponymous servant in Mary Reilly is again evident in this powerful story of a petulant and bitter plantation mistress whose absorption in her own misery leaves her blind to that of a slave she despises. Manon Gaudet is married to her husband before she could know whether the socially advantageous match would be a happy one, before discovering he is a cruel slave master with a propensity for debt and certainly before realizing that he will force Sarah, the light-skinned housekeeper who was a wedding gift from her aunt, to bear two of his illegitimate children. She learns all of these things soon after leaving her native New Orleans and arriving on her new husband's Louisiana sugar plantation, and is henceforth consumed by loathing for both her domestic predicament and the society in which it is possible. Manon's fierce discontent makes her an excellent narrator, as she has long abandoned any romantic notions about slavery and the plantation life. Her husband's arbitrary cruelty fills her with disgust for him, the "negroes" he abuses and herself. Her misery is grotesquely self-centered; she never evinces even a glimmer of sympathy for Sarah. Martin conveys this sickening blend of moral delusion and self-serving repugnance in feverish prose that perfectly reflects Manon's desperation. The racial unrest of the 1820s reaches this unhappy trio in the form of a small gang of escaped slaves who, in an unforgettably hellish scene, wound Manon, murder her husband and allow Sarah to escape. Manon's subsequent determination to have Sarah caught and returned is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this story, an emphatic reminder that the inhumanity of slave ownership knew no bounds. Yet in depicting Manon's plight as wife and widow, Martin also demonstrates compassion for white women in the patriarchal society of the antebellum South. In addressing these issues, Martin adds resonance to a compelling story. (Feb.) Forecast: Strong reviews should greet this intensely dramatic novel, which seems a natural for a TV book club selection. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Martin (Mary Reilly) re-creates antebellum New Orleans, examining how slavery affects owners as well as slaves. Manon Gaudet, the narrator, is the unhappy young wife of a sugar planter, disgusted by her husband's blatant sexual desires for both her and her slave Sarah. Contained here are all the trademarks of Martin's fiction-a female narrator sensitive to her own misery but somehow missing the big picture; the depiction of individuals and society as violent, self-absorbed, and base; and a mass of twisted sexual and interpersonal relations. The novel's subject lifts it above the ordinary. In chilling, crystalline prose, Manon disparages her husband's brutality but fails to recognize her own complicity as a slave-owner when she ruthlessly pursues Sarah after the woman escapes, thus betraying her own view of slaves as property, no different from an armchair. In this beautiful, disturbing novel, Martin has found an ideal match for her narrative obsessions. Property will resonate with readers long after it is finished. For all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/02.]-Andrea Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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 ina cycle of permanent bitterness.
Read an Excerpt
IT NEVER ENDS. I watched him through the spyglass to see what the game would be. There were five of them. He gets them all gathered at the river's edge and they are nervous. If they haven't done this before, they've heard about it. First he reads to them from the Bible. I don't have to hear it to know what passage it is. Then they have to strip, which takes no time as they are wearing only linen pantaloons. One by one they must grasp the rope, swing over the water, and drop in. It's brutally hot; the cool water is a relief, so they make the best of it. He encourages them to shout and slap at one another once they are in the water. Then they have to come out and do it again, only this time they hang on the rope two at a time, which means one has to hold on to the other. They had gotten this far when I looked.
Two boys were pulling the rope, one holding on while the other clutched his shoulders. They were laughing because they were slippery. The sun made their bodies glisten and steam like a horse's flanks after a long run. The boy on the ground ran down the bank and off they went, out over the water, releasing the rope at the highest point of its arc and crashing into the smooth surface below like wounded black geese. He hardly watched them. He was choosing the next two, directing one to catch the rope on its return, running his hands over the shoulders of the other, which made the boy cower and study the ground. I couldn't watch anymore.
They have to keep doing this, their lithe young bodies displayed to him in various positions. When he gets them up to three or four at a time, he watches closely. The boys rub against each other; they can't help it. Their limbs become entwined, they struggle to hang on, and it isn't long before one comes out of the water with his member raised. That's what the game is for. This boy tries to stay in the water, he hangs his head as he comes out, thinking every thought he can to make the tumescence subside. This is what proves they are brutes, he says, and have not the power of reason. A white man, knowing he would be beaten for it, would not be able to raise his member.
He has his stick there by the tree; it is never far from him. The boys fall silent as he takes it up. Sometimes the offending boy cries out or tries to run away, but he's no match for this grown man with his stick. The servant's tumescence subsides as quickly as the master's rises, and the latter will last until he gets to the quarter. If he can find the boy's mother, and she's pretty, she will pay dearly for rearing an unnatural child.
This is only one of his games. When he comes back to the house he will be in a fine humor for the rest of the day.
Often, as I look through the glass, I hear in my head an incredulous refrain: This is my husband, this is my husband.
IN THE MORNING he was in a fury because Mr. Sutter has gotten into such a standoff with one of the negroes that he has had him whipped and it will be a week before he can work again. They are cutting wood in shifts and there are no hands to spare, or so my husband has persuaded himself. The negro, Leo, is the strongest worker we have. He maintains Leo was never a problem until Sutter decided he was insolent. Sutter's real grievance, he says, is that Leo has befriended a woman Sutter wants for himself. I had to listen to all this at breakfast. He cursed and declared he would kill Sutter, then sent back the food, saying it was cold. Sarah went out with the plate. He leaned back in his chair and put his hand over his eyes. "She's poisoning me," he said.
When Sarah came back, he pretended to soften. "Is Walter in the house?" he asked. "Send him to me."
So then we had the little bastard running up and down the dining room, putting his grubby fingers in the serving plates, eating bits of meat from his father's hand like a dog. Sarah leaned against the sideboard and watched, but she didn't appear to enjoy the sight much more than I did. The child is a mad creature, like a beautiful and vicious little wildcat. It wouldn't surprise me to see him clawing the portieres. He has his father's curly red hair and green eyes, his mother's golden skin, her full pouting lips. He speaks a strange gibberish even Sarah doesn't understand. His father dotes on him for a few minutes now and then, but he soon tires of this and sends him away to the kitchen, where he lives under the table, torturing a puppy Delphine was fool enough to give him. Once the boy was gone, he turned his attention to Sarah. "Go down and see to Leo," he said. "And give me a report in my office when you have done."
She nodded, eyes cast down. Then he pushed back his chair and went out without speaking to me.
"He thinks you are poisoning him," I said when he was gone, watching her face. Something flickered at the corner of her mouth; was it amusement? "I'll have more coffee," I said.
ON THE PRETENSE that she is of some use to me, I had Sarah in my room all morning with the baby she calls Nell, a dark, ugly thing, but quiet enough. He hates the sight of this one. It's too dark to be his, or so he thinks, though stranger things have happened, and everyone knows a drop of negro blood does sometimes overflow like an inkpot in the child of parents who are passing for white, to the horror of the couple and their other children as well. Somehow Sarah has prevailed upon my husband, with tears and cajoling, I've no doubt, to let her keep this baby in the house until it is weaned. At first she had it in the kitchen, but she was up and down the stairs a hundred times a day, which made him so irritable he demanded that I do something about it. I told Sarah to bring a crate from the quarter and put it in the corner of my room, which earned me one of her rare straightforward looks that I take to mean she's pleased.
It was so hot, I had her fan me. So there we sat, I with my eternal sewing, Sarah plying the fan, and the baby sleeping in her box. She has rigged the box out absurdly with a ticking mattress stuffed with moss and covered by a rag quilt. She even tacked a loop of willow across the middle to hold up a piece of mosquito net. "Is she a princess?" I said when I saw this ridiculous contraption. "If she not itchy, she won' cry," Sarah replied. This, I had to admit, was a reasonable assertion. It is one of the annoying things about her; on those occasions when she bothers to speak, she makes sense.
After a while the baby whimpered. Sarah took it up to suckle, holding it in one arm and working the fan with the other. She had pulled her chair up behind mine so I couldn't watch this process, but I could hear the nuzzling, snuffling sound, mewing a little now and then like a kitten. I don't understand why she is so determined to suckle this one, as it will be passed down to the quarter as soon as it's weaned and sold away when it is old enough to work. He won't get much for her. Ugly, dark little girls aren't easy to sell. It would be a good joke on him if he had to give her away.
Eventually I grew bored and tried talking to her, a largely hopeless enterprise. "You went down to tend to Leo?" I said.
"I did," she replied.
"Is he bad?"
"Who did the whipping?"
"I don' know."
So much for conversation.
AT DINNER HE was gloomy. The new rollers for the sugar press have come. He spent the morning trying to get them installed and cut his hand badly in the process. It is all Sutter's fault because he couldn't use Leo, who has more experience with the press than anyone on the place. He had to call in two boys from the field who didn't know their right hands from their left and couldn't hold up their own pants. If Sutter wanted to whip boys near to death, he said, why couldn't he choose worthless ones like these two and not the only useful negro on the place.
When Sarah brought the potatoes in, he took a spoon from the bowl straight to his mouth and then spat it into his plate. "Are we not possessed of a warming dish in this house!" he cried out. Sarah picked up the bowl, pulled the plate away, and headed for the door. He wiped his mouth vigorously with his napkin, swallowed half a glass of wine. "I swear she puts them in the icehouse."
I looked at him for a few moments blankly, without comment, as if he was speaking a foreign language. This unnerves him. It's a trick I learned from Sarah. "Since there are no servants presently available, Mistress Manon," he said, "I'll have to prevail on you to serve me some meat."
I got up, went to the sideboard, and served out a few slices of roast. When I set the plate in front of him, he attacked it like a starving man. Sarah came back in carrying a bowl wrapped in a cloth which sent up a puff of steam when she opened it. He grunted approval as she spooned a portion onto his plate.
I went to my place but couldn't bring myself to sit down. "I have a headache," I said. "I'll have dinner later in my room." He nodded, then, as I was leaving, he said, "I would like to speak to you in my office before supper."
"Would four o'clock be convenient?" I said.
"Yes," he replied through a mouthful of food.
HE PRIDES HIMSELF on being different from his neighbors, but his office looks exactly like every planter's office in the state: the good carpet, the leather-topped desk, the engravings of racehorses, the Bible with the ribbon marker that never moves, employed as a paperweight, the cabinet stocked with strong drink. I kept him waiting a quarter of an hour to irritate him. When I went in he was sitting at the desk poring over his account books. He does this by the hour, totaling up long lists of supplies and others of debt. Without looking at me, he observed, "Someone is stealing corn."
"Are you sure there's no mistake in your figures?" I asked.
He looked up. "Will you sit down?" he said, gesturing to a chair. I was so surprised by his civil tone that I did as he asked, and busied myself arranging my skirts until he should be moved to reveal the motive of his summons.
"Three of Joel Borden's negroes ran away on Sunday," he began. "Last night one of them broke into Duplantier's smokehouse. The houseboy saw him and raised the alarm, but they didn't catch him. Duplantier says he was carrying a pistol, though where he got it no one knows. Borden isn't missing any firearms."
"I see," I said.
"So they're coming this way."
"Yes," I agreed.
"They'll probably try to pass through the bottomland and get to the boat landing. I'm joining the patrol at dark. I've got two sentries I can trust here; they'll be moving around all night. I'll lock the house and put the dogs in the kitchen."
"Delphine is afraid of the dogs."
"Well, she'll just have to be afraid," he said impatiently. "She'll be a heap more scared if one of these bucks comes through the window with a pistol."
"That's true," I said.
"I want you and Sarah to stay in your room, lock the door, and don't come out for anything until I come back."
I kept my eyes down. "Wouldn't it be better for Sarah to stay in the kitchen with Delphine?"
"Don't worry about Delphine. She'll have Walter and Rose with her."
Walter is a mad child and Rose a flighty girl. Neither would be of much use in a crisis. "And Sarah will be safer with me," I observed.
"You'll be safer together," he corrected me, scowling at my impertinence, then neatly changing the subject. "It's all Borden's fault. He doesn't half-feed his negroes and his overseer is the meanest man on earth. The ham they got from Duplantier was probably the first decent food they'd had in a year."
"Is Joel here or in town?"
"He came up quick enough when he heard about it. Now he's grumbling that he'll be out two thousand dollars if we kill them. Not one man on the patrol is going to risk his life to save one of these damned runaways. If we can find them, they'll be better off dead than dragged back to Borden's overseer, and I've no doubt they know it."
"Then they must be desperate."
He gave me a long look, trying to detect any mockery in this remark. Evidently he found none and his inspection shifted from my mood to my person, where he found cause for a suspicion of extravagance. "Is that a new dress?" he asked.
"No," I replied. "I retrimmed it with some lace Aunt Lelia sent."
His eyes swept over my figure in that rapacious way I find so unsettling. "You've changed the neck."
He couldn't be dismissed as an unobservant man. "Yes," I said. "The styles have changed."
"I wonder how you know when you have so little society."
"I copied it from a paper my aunt sent with the lace."
"It's very becoming," he said.
There was a time when I was moved by compliments, but that time is long behind us, as we both know. Still he manages to work up some feeling about what he imagines is my ingratitude. "I'm sorry to vex you by remarking on your appearance, Manon," he said. "You are free to leave, if you've no business of your own to discuss with me."
I stood up. What business might that be? I wondered. Perhaps he'd care to have a look at my accounts: on one side my grievances, on the other my resolutions, all in perfect balance. I allowed my eyes to rest upon his face. He brought his hand to his mustache, smoothing down one side of it, a nervous habit of his. It's always the right side, never the left. Looking at him makes my spine stiffen; I could feel the straightness of it, the elongation of my neck as I turned away. There was the rustling sound of my skirt sweeping against the carpet as I left the room, terminating thereby another lively interview with my husband.