Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Property by Valerie Martin
I picked up Property mainly because it had won the Orange Prize in 2003 and I've yet to be disappointed by the winners. The good news is that Property isn't destined to be the first disappointment; I loved it. It's told in a bare, simplistic style but there's so much emotion and feeling in the story that each word is powerful. Martin doesn't take the easy route of demonising slave owners, rather she attempts to paint a realistic picture of what slave owners at that time would have thought. At times Manon can be almost kind to the slaves, but at others she dismisses them completely, as objects not worthy of human consideration. I appreciated the ambiguity in the writing as a mark of a good writer.
The 'property' in the book doesn't just refer to the ownership of slaves, it also alludes to the ownership of Manon by her husband. On their wedding day, Manon knows next to nothing about him, but her life is in his hands from that moment on. Even when she inherits a property of her own from a relative, Manon isn't free to live in it to escape her domestic situation as legally the property belongs to her husband. In some ways, she is property as much as the slaves are. This extra angle made the book more interesting.
Property isn't a book to pick up if you are after happiness. There's misery in the story from the very first scene and marital abuse and the misuse of slaves are constant parts of the narrative. Even when it seems like things might be looking up for Manon, something else happens to add more misery. But what the story lacks in happy endings, it makes up for in authenticity. The whole thing felt very believable for nineteenth century Louisiana and the characters are so ambiguously written that as a reader, you aren't sure whether you even want them to be happy.
I'm glad I picked up Property. It's a powerfully written and subtle book that I carried on thinking about long after putting it down. Recommended.
First Published: 2003
Score: 4 out of 5