In 19th century Louisiana, Manon Gaudet seethes under the dominion of her boorish husband, particularly over his relationship with her slave Sarah, in this inquiry into slavery’s venomous effects on the owner and the owned.
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.