Winner of the 2003 Orange Prize for Fiction
Synopses & Reviews
Valerie Martin's Property
delivers an eerily mesmerizing inquiry into slavery's venomous effects on the owner and the owned. The year is 1828, the setting a Louisiana sugar plantation where Manon Gaudet, pretty, bitterly intelligent, and monstrously self-absorbed, seethes under the dominion of her boorish husband. In particular his relationship with her slave Sarah, who is both his victim and his mistress.
Exploring the permutations of Manon's own obsession with Sarah against the backdrop of an impending slave rebellion, Property unfolds with the speed and menace of heat lightning, casting a startling light from the past upon the assumptions we still make about the powerful and powerless.
"[A] powerful story....Martin conveys this sickening blend of moral delusion and self-serving repugnance in feverish prose that perfectly reflects Manon's desperation....Martin adds resonance to a compelling story." Publishers Weekly
"A nimble, enlightening and horrific story about the morally corrosive effects of slavery and one childish soul, locked in a cycle of permanent bitterness." Kirkus Reviews
"The book is taut and atmospheric and effectively chronicles an obsessive fixation." Booklist
"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." The Washington Post
"Tightly constructed [and] suspenseful....Manon is a vividly presented voice, precociously cynical, mordantly amusing, despairing....A subtly cadenced novel of racial and sexual transgressions." The New York Review of Books
"Fraught with tension, desperation, and rage, all masterfully sustained....An unflinching depiction of our nation's most shameful historical chapter." Los Angeles Times
"This is not Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara, and this Louisiana plantation is not Tara, but for the reader willing to take a thought-provoking look at this period in American history, Property is ultimately rewarding." Dallas Morning News
"I finished this extremely short book feeling a thirst to know more from a book that was less a novel than an extended outline. Martin did not back up this historical novel with enough history or enough detail..." Kansas City Star
"[A] fierce and fiercely felt novel....When it tries too hard to deliver verifiable facts, Property can seem pedantic; when it relies instead on the grotesqueries of Manon's life, it makes its point with splendid simplicity." Boston Globe
Valerie Martins Property
delivers an eerily mesmerizing inquiry into slaverys venomous effects on the owner and the owned. The year is 1828, the setting a Louisiana sugar plantation where Manon Gaudet, pretty, bitterly intelligent, and monstrously self-absorbed, seethes under the dominion of her boorish husband. In particular his relationship with her slave Sarah, who is both his victim and his mistress.
Exploring the permutations of Manons own obsession with Sarah against the backdrop of an impending slave rebellion, Property unfolds with the speed and menace of heat lightning, casting a startling light from the past upon the assumptions we still make about the powerful and powerful.
About the Author
Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including Italian Fever, The Great Divorce, and Mary Reilly. Her most recent book is a nonfiction work on St. Francis of Assisi: Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis. She resides in upstate New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does Property
differ from such long-time favorite novels of the South as Gone With the Wind
2. In the early pages of the novel, Manon treasures the memory of her father and of his fairness to their slaves. Yet over the course of the novel, she changes her mind, rejecting him so fiercely that she turns his picture face down and calls him a hypocrite [p. 182]. What psychological progression leads to Manons change of heart?
3. Manon remembers her father telling her that “Religion was for the Negroes . . . it was their solace and consolation, as they were ours” [p. 22]. Discuss Manons relationship to the religious convictions that were the sources of pro- and anti- slavery movements in both North and South.
4. In what sense is Sarah an alter ego or “double” for Manon?
5. When Manon is in her husbands control, one might say she is something of a slave herself. Yet once she is free, her sense of injustice and victimization persist. What explains that, and how does it relate to other historical situations involving the oppression of one group by another?
6. Manon speaks of a lie, “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 is the lie?
7. Babies and the act of nursing figure in several scenes in the novel. Recalling how white infants were nursed by slaves, Manon muses, “Perhaps that was how the poison entered us all” [p. 180]. What is the poison?
8. One of the most dramatic sections in the novel is the story of Sarahs escape. Why does the author relate these events not from Sarahs point of view but as a story told to Manon third-hand?
9. At the end of the novel, Mr. Roget, a free black man and New Orleans artisan, steps forward and offers to purchase Sarah and Walter from Manon. She refuses, speaking of a bit of white plaster that falls from his suit to the carpet as enraging her and sealing his fate. [p. 170]. Why does she refuse his offer, and what is the significance of the plaster?
10. How does Manon view Walter at the end of Property? What do you imagine will become of him?
11. What is the significance of the spyglass at the opening of the novel, and of the first-person narrative voice the author uses?
Winner of the Orange Prize
“This fresh, unsentimental look at what slave owning does to (and for) ones interior life must be a first. And the writing—so prised and clean-limbed—is a marvel.” —Toni Morrison
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups reading of Valerie Martins Property, groundbreaking fiction selected by the international Orange Prize committee as the best novel of the year by a woman writing in English.