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A Voice in the Darkness

By Margaret Black

Property
By Valerie Martin
Doubleday, 193 pages, $23.95

Most fiction writers nowadays write from the point of view of one or several characters, so that we gradually come to comprehend the story they are telling in the same confused and partial way that we understand events in real life. Patterns become apparent only after the fact, and even then they are shaped by individual biases. There is no one truth, but only individual approximations of it. Property, Valerie Martin’s latest novel, is a tour de force in one voice, that of Manon Gaudet, a peevish, self-absorbed young woman living on a sugar plantation north of New Orleans in the 1830s. This book is extraordinary because through the mind of Manon—a nasty character living in a vile society—the author manages to create a world of three-dimensional people for whom we actually feel sympathy.

Manon has made an apparently advantageous marriage. Her husband owns a large plantation and is closely connected to the best families. She expects life to be gracious and civilized. She expects to be the mistress of a small empire. And to help her out in her new role, Manon’s aunt has given her Sarah, an extremely competent and attractive personal slave, as a wedding gift.

But everything is lies, as Manon sourly discovers. Her husband’s enterprise staggers under debt. His management is pathetically inadequate, bizarrely perverse, and endemically violent. Manon realizes that she has no more freedom than Sarah, although we recognize she has considerably more comforts. All whites in the region live in fear, regularly realized, of sudden acts of violence. Even Sarah has come to Manon under false pretenses: Manon’s aunt simply wanted to get Sarah out of her own household. Moreover, while Manon remains childless, Sarah produces a wild deaf-mute son by Manon’s husband, as well as two children by other fathers.

The determining importance of property extends far beyond slave bodies. Manon despairs that a small dwelling she has inherited in New Orleans, which offers her a tantalizing prospect of independent living, will disappear into the sinkhole of her husband’s debts: “He’s going to sell my house, I thought, and I’ll be trapped here until I die.” Even before her marriage, Manon has been flattered by the occasional company of charming, civilized, penniless Joel Borden, who prefers the delights of New Orleans to his faltering estate near Manon. After her husband’s death, however, Manon is forced to recognize her fantasies for what they are: “It seemed that happiness must always be just beyond me and I should always stand gazing in at it as through a shopwindow where everything glittered and appealed to me, but I had not enough money to enter. It was money, only money, that would keep Joel from ever being more than my friendly admirer.”

Manon’s sympathies never extend beyond herself, but her endless complaints reveal the general nightmare of existence in a slave society. The reduction of life to property mangles everyone, owners and owned alike. As Manon leaves for the city to visit her dying mother, she observes: “Nothing could have been more laughable than the touching scene of our departure: the master bids farewell to his wife and servant, tremulous with the fear that one of them may not return. But which one? He wishes I might die of cholera, and fears that she may instead. I wish he might be killed while shooting rebellious negroes. She wishes us both dead.”

If readers question the authenticity of this vision, they should try such personal memoirs from the period as that by the wife of a major figure in the Confederacy, Mary Chesnut (the entire Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, not the piece of bowdlerized pap called A Diary From Dixie). No friend to black people, Chesnut nonetheless railed against the tyranny of white men, the servile condition of white women, the disgusting personal relations produced by white men breeding slave and free children, and the universal wretchedness brought about by slavery. Her diaries record the constant fear of murder and arson, the constant struggle with a labor force whose sabotage was effortlessly constant.

But Manon’s voice accomplishes more than historical reportage. It does more than reveal plot and disclose the speaker’s moral vacuity. As with Jason in Faulkner’s The Sound and Fury, Manon’s self-serving rant forces us, despite ourselves, into understanding her, her husband, and her society. We even have moments of sympathy for individuals caught in a system they didn’t invent but won’t reject. Confined inside Manon’s cramped mind, the author nonetheless succeeds in creating complexity. We might expect that Sarah would emerge from Manon’s venomous comments as a noble victim, but the author also has Manon recognize that she and Sarah share the same desire: to see her husband dead. Manon tells the tale, but nonetheless we see her crude and brutal husband in a moment of selfless heroism. The author even manages to give Sarah some edge. How the various characters act toward Walter, the little deaf-mute, subtly measures their goodness, and only the cook Delphine, a blameless soul like Faulkner’s Dilsey, steadfastly cares for him as another human being.

In her novel Mary Reilly—about a maidservant in the fictional household of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde—Valerie Martin demonstrated her considerable ability at creating an authentic historical voice. But Property is superior. Short, taut and uncompromising, it looks straight into a sulphurous, homegrown Heart of Darkness.

 


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