Manon is a vividly presented voice, poised, precociously cynical, mordantly amusing, despairing. We trust her as a truth-teller though we guess that we should not, for her fury at the bad luck of her life, masked as spiritual blankness and paralysis, distorts her vision. We would wish to think that Manon sees through the racist delusions of her society, but of course she does not; it would be a sentimental and unconvincing gesture for the author to isolate Manon in this way, despite the young woman’s intelligence … Though Manon is vividly individualized, we understand that her experiences as daughter, naive young bride, despoiled and disillusioned wife are representative of her social position … Property might be described as a novel of ideas in the guise of a darkly erotic romance.
The year is 1828, and Manon begins her account with a simple, chilling declaration: ‘It never ends.’ Everything in her life oppresses her … Manon tells the story of her marriage, forcing us to view it from her own perspective. We assume that she deliberately reveals her husband in a negative light, and so we try to take his actions at face value, preserving objectivity. He seems no better – and not much worse – than most men of his time and place and station … Manon intends for us to hate him, but as the story unfolds we find her to be the character whose actions are more deviously cruel … What exactly is the nature of the property that gives this novel its title? Just as Manon was owned by her husband, unable to escape his control or her material dependence, so is Sarah the property of a mistress determined not to let her go.
Valerie Martin's compelling new novel about the antebellum South describes the lurid, slippery power of the slavemaster over the slave, and how that authority debases and deranges not only the captive men and women but also the master himself. Or rather, herself … Martin's book is a painful and elegant study of Manon's kind of power, the authority of the mighty over the deprived. Less than a jailer, more than a guardian, Manon exercises her control over Sarah in ways that are intimate and shocking, and have the horrifying familiarity of what happens between lovers, or mothers and daughters. Martin's consistent grace as a writer renders these episodes all the more disturbing … 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.
From the start, Manon is a complex and fascinating character. Although angered by her husband's routine abuse of the slaves, she fantasizes about their freedom, not because it would be the enlightened thing to do but because it would punish her husband and bring ruin to the plantation. Perversely, Manon almost envies the slaves, convinced that she is more of a prisoner in the household than they are; entirely self-centered, she views herself as a victim … Property offers more than fascinating character studies; also described are slave rebellions that terrorize white plantation owners in the region. And when the insurgent slaves go to Manon's home, her life is irrevocably changed by the violence … Rendering Manon repugnant to the end is a brave choice, and it works. In every sense, Property is bold and uncompromising.
Martin bravely and honestly explores a somewhat overlooked perspective on life in the antebellum South – that of the wives of plantation owners … With swift and deliberate plotting, Property pits Manon in competition against her house slave Sarah, even though neither much cares for the prize. Manon orders Sarah to perform menial tasks just to prove that she can, while all Sarah has to do to crush her mistress's heart is nurse her mixed-blood baby in plain sight. Although Manon's cruelty is abominable, Martin does not judge her for it, instead portraying her as a woman caught in the grip of a system – slavery – that degrades all it touches … As Manon's monologue progresses, it becomes clear that Sarah is not just her erotic competitor but a benchmark for how paltry her mistress's freedom is.
Martin's narrator, Manon Gaudet, is a malcontent, acutely conscious of her second-class status as a woman and a wife in 1820s Louisiana. That doesn't stop her from holding a bedrock belief in the slave-owning caste society she grew up in. It also doesn't stop her from wielding her manipulative abilities against her domineering husband with considerable finesse … Manon's efforts are gratuitous, vindictive, irrational – and yet, in terms of the novel, entirely persuasive. With them, Martin immerses us in the dehumanizing/dehumanized core of a character whose other traits – a desire for independence from her husband, a yearning for the amenities of the city – are readily understandable … Martin's prose moves swiftly, riddled with troubling currents, as abuse, suspicion and sexual frustration work their corrosive effects on Manon and her intimates.
While Property reveals the corrupting, dehumanising power of ownership on those who own, it also explores the jockeying intimacy of women forced to share a man – though with incomparable degrees of powerlessness. Manon persists in seeing Sarah as a sexual rival, despite her having resisted and been brutally subjugated, first by Manon's uncle, then by her husband. Sarah's life emerges between the lines of her mistress's self-regarding tale, as Manon prepares her ultimate act of vindictiveness and revenge … Martin is adept at maintaining dramatic irony. Yet though it is presented as uncensored, it seems curiously free of the south's cruder racial epithets. And…Property, for all its authorial irony, remains Manon's story.
Property is a ferociously honest book attacking a subject that has long been wrapped in what her heroine calls ‘lies without end’: race in America. So much ink has been spilled on the topic, and so much of it pabulum and equivocation, that you wouldn’t think any writer could find a way to make it fresh or show you anything new, but Martin has … Manon is intelligent and observant, but — and this is central to Martin’s conception of her — she has no imagination. She can tell that Sarah hates her husband as much as she does and takes some bitter comfort in their shared antipathy, but it never occurs to her to wonder what it must be like to suffer the wrenching abuse of slavery, the routine loss of loved ones and relatives, the beatings, the insults.
There's little that's sweet on this plantation with respect to the lives of its inhabitants. Manon is a mean taskmistress … I wish I could say I felt the emotion behind Manon's pathetic discovery of her own worth, or lack of it, as a human being … Perhaps if Martin had made Manon's diction as accurate as her historical setting I might have felt more at ease with the story … Except for that extraordinary moment when she attaches her lips to Sarah's breast, she behaves as though she has no heart at all, only a vile hatred for everyone around her because of her recognition of her own moral enslavement.
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 … 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.