Reviewed by Harriet
Jane Harris is not exactly a prolific novelist. Five years passed between the publication of her debut novel The Observations (2006) and her second outing Gillespie and I (2011). Now her many fans will be breathing a sigh of relief that the waiting is over for her third, Sugar Money, just published. I know I’m not alone in having felt tremendous excitement when I heard it was on the way. I loved The Observations more than I can say – I’ve read it twice and if I had a list of best-ever contemporary novels it would certainly be on it. Gillespie and I was equally brilliant. Although they are two very different stories, set in different historical periods, they have one very obvious thing in common – the author’s ability to assume the voice and personality of the main protagonist. Bessy Buckley in the first novel is a feisty young Irish maid, while Harriet Baxter in the second is an elderly Scottish woman, but both are entirely convincing. So who were we going to meet in Sugar Money?
Amazingly, Jane Harris has pulled it off again. This time we are on the Caribbean island of Martinique, in 1765. The story is told by a young mulatto slave, Lucien. He doesn’t know how old he is –he’d like to be taken for sixteen but he’s certainly younger. Lucien has an older brother, Emile, who he idolises. The two of them are owned by a commune of French monks, les Frères de la Charité. Originally located on the nearby island of Grenada, the Brothers had been forced by the British to leave, and when they did, they left their colony of forty slaves behind. Now their existing supply of slaves in Martinique is dwindling, and they want to get back from Grenada the forty they still believe they own. And Emile and Lucien have been chosen to lead the slaves back to a boat that will take them to safety. It’s a huge task, but Father Cléophas believes they are equal to it. Lucien is excited because it means he can spend time with his beloved brother: ‘I grew thrill to the very marrow. An expedition with Emile to ‘La Grenade’ struck me as naught but an adventure’. Emile is more reserved, more realistic, and apprehensive because his erstwhile sweetheart, Celeste, is one of the slaves they are setting out to rescue. In any case, before much time has passed, they are on the way across the sea to the neighbouring island and whatever adventures await them there.
And adventures they certainly have. The novel is actually based on a true story – there really was a rescue attempt, and the outcome was much as described in the novel. It’s a real page-turner of a story, with many ups and downs and a fair share of tragedy. But there’s much more going on here than just an exciting adventure. The relationship between the two brothers is brilliantly done – Lucien so adoring, but so anxious to show that he’s capable of taking on whatever tasks are involved in the expedition. He’s intelligent but hot-headed and makes some foolish mistakes along the way. Emile is more withdrawn and inarticulate, but he clearly loves and feels protective towards his little brother, however much he irritates him at times.
Another crucial element of the narrative is what it reveals about the conditions of life endured by the slaves. Father Cléophas is a bit ineffectual but seems like a kind enough master – however the boys have put up with much worse until recently from a now dead Father Pillon who, besides being violently abusive, was clearly the boys’ father. The slaves on Grenada have a much harder time of it as the English are cruel masters, frequently beating or torturing anyone who steps out of line. The women, meanwhile, are subjected to rape and forced to bear the ‘mulatto’ children of their masters.
But of course what makes this novel really stand out is Lucien’s wonderfully reproduced narrative voice. The story is supposed to be told by him many years later, as an old man working as a gardener in a grand English country house – after his death, ‘the mansucript had been found among the old man’s belongings’. He’s clearly had some English education, so he writes in that language and sometimes he sounds rather formal, though not always completely grammatically correct. But in recounting the story of his childhood, he often reproduces the way he and his fellow slaves spoke in those days, full of lively idioms, and interspering bits of French together with Creole, which is a sort of adulterated French. The English masters on Grenada have banned French, but the slaves there want to speak it anyway:
‘They think the French too soft on us. Bring a new regime all over the island, harsh-harsh. This overseer now, Addison Bell, that man would string you up soon as look at you. Him and Bryant together –puten! They make us bessy-down and speak English: “Yes, master, sir; no master sir.” Well, nobody likes it, of course. Pésonn! Pésonn veut palé Anglé. Now French – that’s a language. La langue Fwancé. Bel, doux, ravissanne. A man can say what he wants in French. But this English – méd!’
By no stretch of the imagination was he speaking in French, but we were too polite to point it out to him.
As you can see, there are touches of comedy here, but that in no way deflects from the fact that this is essentially a drama of heart-rending proportions. So, Jane Harris has managed to do it again.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books – read her Q&A with Jane Harris here.
Jane Harris, Sugar Money (Faber, 2017). 978-0571336920, 400pp., hardback.
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