Winner of the 2003 Orange Prize
Synopses & Reviews
From the acclaimed author of Mary Reilly, a groundbreaking novel that reexamines the questions of power and resistance, violence and sex, which inform all her work.
Set in the surreal heat of the antebellum South during a slave rebellion, PROPERTY takes the form of a dramatic monologue, bringing to the page a voice rarely heard in American fiction: the voice of a woman slave holder. Manon Gaudet is pretty and petulant, self-absorbed and bored. She has come to a sugar plantation north of New Orleans as a bride, bringing with her a prized piece of property, the young slave Sarah, only to see Sarah become her husband's mistress and bear his child. As the whispers of a slave rebellion grow louder and more threatening, Manon speaks to us of her past and her present, her longings and dreams - an uncensored, pitch-perfect voice from the heart of moral darkness.
PROPERTY is riveting fiction, fast, richly plotted, shimmering with visual detail. It is also an invitation to re-examine the traditions of the Southern novel and the myth of the chivalrous South, and a haunting meditation on what Valerie Martin has called the fantastic and constant perversity of the oppressor to feel victimized by the oppressed.
"The vivid imagination that allowed Martin to create...Mary Reilly is again evident in this powerful story....[C]ompelling..." Publishers Weekly
"Property is a ferociously honest book attacking a subject that has long been wrapped in what her heroine calls 'lies without end': race in America....Property is the kind of novel that reminds you that literary fiction still has the power to take us where no other art form can, and that in doing so it can remake the way we understand ourselves." Laura Miller, Salon.com
"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. Reading Property brings to mind the work of Kara Walker, the prodigious paper artist who makes sublime Victorian-style silhouettes depicting, with surreal detail, the monstrous and forcibly sensual ties between master and slave." Yxta Maya Murray, The Washington Post
"The book is taut and atmospheric and effectively chronicles an obsessive fixation." Kristine Huntley, Booklist
"[A]n austere study of power disguised as a lush antebellum romance....None of Martin's characters has the greatness of heart to feel for the others, and the reader's emotional attachment to the work is deliberately thwarted. Instead we see the power of the strong...and the power of the weak...combine to lay waste to all happiness." Penelope Mesic, Book Magazine
"I made the 'mistake' of glancing at the opening page and was instantly hijacked into the text. This fresh, unsentimental look at what slaveowning does to (and for) one's interior life must be a first. And the writing so prised and clean-limbed is a marvel." Toni Morrison, author of Beloved and Paradise
"[Property] is a brilliant, chillingly revelatory piece of fiction, a work of craft, economy and such good merciless observation one of those rare, crucial novels illuminating a history we think we know and understand so that after we've read it we'll never forget its truth." Ali Smith, author of Hotel World
"A wonderful novel, vivid, revealing." Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries
"In this stunningly powerful novel, Valerie Martin's gifts a fearless originality and seemingly limitless perspective combined with a cool and elegant intelligence are all on splendid display." Barbara Gowdy
"[Property] is vivid and gripping. I read it in one gulp."
From the acclaimed author of Mary Reilly comes a groundbreaking novel set in the antebellum South during a slave rebellion, told by Manon Gaudet, a female slave owner who speaks about her past, her present, and her longings in an uncensored, pitch-perfect voice from the heart of moral darkness.
About the Author
Valerie Martin's works include the novels Mary Reilly, The Great Divorce, and Italian Fever. Her most recent book, Salvation, is a reconsideration of St. Franciss life. A native of New Orleans, Martin now lives in upstate New York.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Valerie Martin's Property
, a groundbreaking novel that examines topics of power and resistance, violence and sex, while set in the surreal heat of the antebellum South during a slave rebellion.
1. In the course of this novel, Manon Gaudet moves from adoring her dead father to rejecting him so fiercely that she turns his picture face down and calls him a hypocrite. Discuss the psychological progression that leads Manon to this thoroughgoing change of heart.
2. Manon recalls that as a child her father told her that “Religion was for the negroes,” adding that “it was their solace and consolation, as they are ours” (p.22). Discuss this remark.
3. In what sense is Sarah an alter ego or a double for Manon?
4. Manon hears voices at several points in the novel, and they’re always saying things she can’t quite understand. Where do you think these voices are coming from?
5. This novel opens with a woman watching her husband through a spyglass. Is this a metaphor for what follows?
6. There are several scenes involving nursing in this novel. Manon suggests that the practice of sending babies out to be nursed by slaves is “how the poison entered us all” (p.180). What is this poison?
7. "It was the lie at the center of everything, the great lie we all supported, tended and worshipped as if our lives depended upon it…” (p.179). Manon claims that it is this lie that has turned her heart to stone, and not, as her aunt maintains, the burden of her childlessness. What, in your view, constitutes this lie?
8. When Manon is in her husband’s control, one might say that she is something of a slave herself. But once her husband is dead, she is perfectly free. What can explain the persistence of her sense of injustice and victimization?
9. Why does the author refuse to let Sarah tell the story of her failed escape from bondage herself? What could be the purpose of having these events related third hand, by the slave-catcher to an acquaintance and thence to Manon’s Aunt Lelia?
10. When Manon refuses to sell Sarah and Walter to Mr. Roget, she says the bit of white plaster that falls from his cuff onto the carpet spurs her decision, that it “enraged” her and, unbeknownst to Mr. Roget, “sealed his fate” (p.170). Is it really the reason Manon refuses to part with Sarah and Walter? Why does Mr. Roget’s offer make her so angry?
11. How does Manon really feel about Walter by the end of the novel? What do you imagine will become of him?