Sugar Money: slavery obscured by a rollicking adventure

Leon Ross in The Guardian:

SlaveJane Harris’s first two historical novels showcased the voices of unsung, socially disadvantaged characters: a young Irish immigrant in The Observations, an elderly Victorian spinster in Gillespie and I. Harris is an empathetic and intelligent writer, with an instinct for the delicate alchemy that produces page-turners. In her third novel, based on a true story, Harris takes us to 1765 and the voice of Lucien, a “mulatto” slave who is “thirteen or fourteen or thereabouts”, and has been brought over to Martinique from his native Grenada. Lucien works tending livestock on a plantation run by French friars. His only family is older brother Emile, who works “a long day hike away”. Lucien is a vivid character from the first page: when called from the cows to his master’s side, he responds to the slack-jawed messenger with the delicious scorn of youth (“he had froth at the corner of his mouth from which signs I deem him to be of no startling intelligence”), while exhibiting a soft centre in regard to the animals (“She had the fluffiest, most velvety ears of any cow you did see”).

The summons is important: Father Cleophas wants the brothers to undertake a highly suspect mission. They must return to Grenada and smuggle back 42 slaves, former property of the friars, but claimed by English invaders when they took over that island two years ago. Celeste, Emile’s former sweetheart, is among them. Cleophas says the endeavour is blessed by the English governor of Grenada, but also warns that the plantation overseers strongly contest their claim. Harris’s decision to cast this as an adventure story – tremulous tone and all – seems intended to express the joie de vivre of our young protagonist. Her gentle beginning barely nods to slavery’s barbarity. What with the humorous references to the eccentric “dummie” of a ship’s captain, Bianco, who swigs rum as he whisks them across the sea, and with Lucien’s hero-worship of Emile and Emile’s longing for Celeste, readers may feel as if they’re on a jolly themselves. By the time they reach Grenada, and begin to convince their old friends to return with them, I wanted to scribble a huge note in the margin as a reminder that slaves have been sent to gather other slaves, and that the 289-kilometre trip from Grenada back to Martinique would be a journey into more slavery.

More here.