A big thank you to the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction for shortlisting Sugar Money by Jane Harris otherwise I may never have stumbled across this gem of a story. Based on real events in Grenada in 1765, we follow young Lucien and his older brother Emile as they attempt to convince the hospital slaves to runaway, on behalf of the French priests of Martinique who used to own them when the French were in control of Grenada.
It’s a story that shows up Anglo-European greed, manipulation and disregard for human life.
A few horrific, disgusting acts of violence were described by the slaves that almost defy belief. They were hard to read. I can’t imagine how they were borne by the people they were inflicted on. Except that the scars inflicted during this time still linger on today. How it is even possible for one human being to think up these atrocious acts of torture let alone commit them against another human being is one of those things I have struggled with all my life? Man’s inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds, whether it’s in concentration camps, gulags, refugee camps, the slave trade or the modern-day human traffickiing problem. We’ve moved on from that time, but not that far.
Fortunately, Sugar Money is also a story about family, loyalty and courage.
The bond between the two brothers is complicated by the usual jealousies and age differences. Lucien’s voice (that narrates the story in the patios of the time) is funny and vibrant. The story reads like a boys own adventure story (thanks to Lucien’s attitude) with lots of action and tension to keep the pages turning. It’s a period and place that I know very little about, so I was on tenterhooks the whole time, fearing what might happen next and suspecting that a story about slavery was never going to end happily ever after.
Issues around white appropriation of a black story are bound to be raised when a slave narrative is written by a young white woman – is this just a softer version of the greed, manipulation and disregard that allowed slavery to occur in the first place? I can’t quite subscribe to this idea, but I appreciate the concerns. Yes, I’m another white person discussing this issue, but I learnt a lot about the horrors of the slave trade via this novel. Stuff I may never have learnt otherwise.
It is this particular curly issue that has caused me to delay this reader response for so long. In the end, though, I believe that any book or story that allows the reader to walk in another’s shoes or bear witness to human tragedy is a powerful tool towards understanding and empathy, whatever the race, religion or gender of the author. Not every single survivor can bear to talk about their suffering, and nor should we expect them to relive their trauma for our edification. Add ancestral guilt (or pride) to the mix and we could talk around and around this topic until the cows come home.
Harris’ story has got under my skin. I was horrified and fascinated in equal measure. She brought the cast of secondary characters vividly to life, as well as the lush landscape of the Caribbean, but it was the wonderful voice of Lucien that gives this book the sparkle and magic that will make it live in my memory for a long time to come.
3/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
15℃ in Sydney & over 33 ml of rain
19℃ in Northern Ireland