If you’re looking for a compelling short novel, Property by Valerie Martin won’t disappoint. Written from the view of a white female slave owner, Manon Gaudet, the book introduces us to a familiar scenario — a woman in an unhappy marriage. The difference is that few novels give us such an honest portrayal of white women who owned slaves and how they felt about their property.
At first, Manon seems to be no different than other women of this time period. But slowly we realize that this woman can only see beyond her own circumstances. Her husband, who according to Manon is dull as can be, does seem to try to win her affections. But he commits a common betrayal of slave owners and gets one of his slaves, Sarah, pregnant.
Although Manon certainly doesn’t want him in her bed, she is disgusted that he would humiliate her and have a bastard with one of their slaves. Throughout the novel, she wishes him dead so that she can pursue a happier life. But Manon’s bitterness and loneliness will never allow her true happiness.
The author teases us with glimpses of Manon’s humanity but quickly extinguishes these by giving us insights into Manon’s lack of compassion for Sarah (or any other slave), who in no way wanted Manon’s husband’s attention. Manon is blithely unaware of the harsh, miserable life that Sarah must endure and sees her simply as a manipulative, conniving woman who doesn’t know her place. When Sarah runs away after a violent encounter with a group of runaway slaves who come to the house, Manon is determined to get her back. Sarah won’t be allowed any good fortune in her life if Manon can help it. And she does.
Compelling to read, this book reminds us of slavery’s long-reaching effect on everyone it touches. The author gives us a raw, brutal portrayal of these characters and draws us into a story that forces us to think about our own ideas of race and class.