I didn’t just love Valerie Martin’s Property—I devoured it, thought about it for weeks, forced it upon every single one of my reading friends, and even initiated a brief correspondence with the writer because I just had to talk about it.
Property is told from the perspective of Manon, a white slave owner’s wife who is appalled by her husband’s treatment of their slaves, yet is unable to see her own complicity in the ownership. She views herself as his property and desires her own freedom too much to understand the depth of the change being brought about by several slave revolts. Her husband’s favorite slave and mistress, Sarah, functions as a silent strength to Manon’s heartless and, at times, chilling tone. The novel centers around their relationship as their life on the plantation is changed forever by a night of violence.
The first person perspective of Manon is what originally fascinated me about this book. Her voice is captivating and engaging yet, throughout the duration of the novel, she is completely unlikeable. Her character is cruel, selfish, and—despite many life changing events that, as a reader, I kept hoping would lead her to redeem herself—she remains unchanged at the novel’s conclusion. When I wrote to ask Martin about her motivations in creating Manon’s character, she told me, “I think the idea is to draw the reader into the mindset of someone they want to have contempt for to such a degree that they wind up feeling implicated in the “unlikeability” of the character.” Underneath the brilliant writing and fast paced story, it was those implications that really led me to love this book.
You see, I am a white woman who grew up in the south. Though I don’t know specifics, my ancestors undoubtedly owned slaves. While it is simple for me to say through my 21st century revisionist perspective that the slave trade was horribly wrong, I can’t say for certain how I would have acted in a different time period. It is difficult to imagine choices I would have made if I only knew the life that Manon knew. I would like to say that I would have been different, that I would have voiced the dissenting opinions and never, never committed the sins against humanity that my ancestors did…but I can’t say for sure. Property demands the kind of introspection that changes you.
Martin told me that she likes reading about the dark side of the human psyche and described her Orange Prize winning book as “a tour of hell with a guide who works for the management.” A character like Manon reminds us of the worst inside us all, something that occasionally needs recognizing. For me to love a book, it has to challenge me, and Property did so in a way that no other book ever has—it completely blew me away. I urge you to find a copy and take Martin’s tour of hell. You won’t be the same ever again.