In Property, Valerie Martin, author of Mary Reilly, has set herself a difficult task. How does one elicit sympathy for an unlikable narrator? Her approach is a gutsy one: Don't try.
Manon Gaudet is a sugarcane planter's wife in the antebellum South. She has come to despise her husband because, in addition to being a humorless dullard, he has produced two children with Manon's own slave girl, Sarah. All while Manon herself remains childless.
Manon tells her story in an intimate monologue, forcing readers to see the world through her eyes and the view is not a pretty one. She's a solipsistic young girl, self-pitying and arrogant, who would prefer nightly dinner parties among New Orleans society to the country life her husband has given her. She is also an unrepentant slave owner and an oblivious hypocrite, raging constantly about her husband's mistreatment of her, his controlling ways, his undisputed ownership of her body and her fortune, while utterly failing to note the similarity between her situation and Sarah's. She never sees that she's doing to Sarah exactly what her husband has done to her, because she can't imagine why Sarah would ever aspire to being anything more than Manon's prized possession. She doesn't understand why Sarah seems ungrateful to belong to her, a kind and sophisticated mistress who values her servant's housekeeping and hairdressing skills.
Telling the story from Manon's viewpoint rather than Sarah's is an interesting tactic, and a brave one. Few readers would be unmoved by a young black woman's story of slavery, rape and emotional blackmail. But choosing a protagonist who's impossible to like is a greater challenge, and it makes for a novel that works on an entirely different level. It forces the reader to understand that the world of slavery existed for years as the unquestioned norm, that it was so commonly accepted for so long that its wrongness never occurred to many who lived within it. This is a novel that, while well written in high gothic style and deliciously evocative of the atmospheric New Orleans area, is not always as pleasant to read as it is important.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon.