"Sarah was sitting forward, her long hands folded in her lap, her eyes resting on the child," Valerie Martin writes. "I raised my hand, cupping her breast, which was lighter than I would have thought. It seemed to slip away from my fingers, but I guided the nipple to my lips and sucked gently. Nothing happened. I took it more deeply into my mouth and sucked from my cheeks. This is what he does, I thought. ... A sensation of utter strangeness came over me, and I struggled not to swoon. I could see myself, kneeling there, and beyond me the room where my mother's body lay, yet it seemed to me she was not dead, that she bore horrified witness to my action. And beyond that I could see my husband in his office, lifting his head from his books with an uncomfortable suspicion that something important was not adding up. This vision made me smile. I closed my eyes swallowing greedily. I was aware of a sound, a sigh, but I was not sure if it came from me or from Sarah. How wonderful I felt, how entirely free. ... I opened my eyes and looked at Sarah's profile. She had lifted her chin as far away from me as she could, her mouth was set in a thin, hard line, and her eyes focused intently on the arm of the settee. She's afraid to look at me, I thought. And she's right to be. If she looked at me, I would slap her."
One critic has called this the most perverse scene in American literature. Why? The "I" is Manon Gaudet, Louisiana plantation mistress, and Sarah is the slave she owns. The scene perfectly serves the surreal relationship of these two women: the indolent inhumanity of Manon met with Sarah's blank fury.
To Martin, that scene is also the very heart of Property. "People who read it say, 'That's the first time I understand that she is owned, that Sarah is completely owned by Manon, physically and in every way,'" Martin says, speaking by telephone from her home in upstate New York. She also intended for the scene to hint at the common antebellum practice of using slaves as wet nurses. "It's like trying to break their maternal heart," she says. "To require a woman to nurse a child that will then own her is a kind of perversity that is just so astonishing to me."
Property is, indeed, a perverse place, a stark vision of societal moral rot. Set in antebellum New Orleans and the surrounding countryside, the novel drips with the mingling decay of fear and lies. Martin dares to imagine what life in the repressive, slave-holding society must have felt like for those entangled in its daily deceits. The idea for the book actually sprang from Martin's absorbing 1994 novel The Great Divorce, in which the modern-day story of one woman's failed marriage acts as counterpoint to a mystical antebellum tale of domestic deviance and murder. "It's a very romanticized vision of that world," Martin says. "I thought that, in some ways, I had done a bit of an injustice by buying into that myth of the gorgeous, gracious Old South."
The impressionistic, character-driven Property explodes that myth. Manon is young and newly married; already, she hates her boorish, domineering husband, a failing sugar cane planter who quickly fathers two children by Manon's prize slave, Sarah. The two children -- a deaf wild child and a baby girl -- are regular reminders of childless Manon's precarious and powerless position and fuel her hatred for the culture that sanctions his behavior. And so Manon spends her days longing for her husband's death and loathing the circumstances of her unhappy home, a despair broken only by the constant threat of slave insurrection. For all her own misery, Manon is a cruel and self-centered creature; she longs for the very personal freedoms her world does not respect -- and thinks little of anyone else around her. "I thought that a book from the point of view of a woman slave owner would allow me to look at it in a very different way than I had before," Martin says. "She's not part of the patriarchy, but she is a slave owner. She's not a slave herself, but she is a person whose freedom is somewhat restricted. I just had to wait until I could hear her voice."
That voice is raw with the rage of a waking nightmare. "Manon's quite a monster," Martin says. "She knows that somebody is to blame, but can't figure out who. Because if she did, she would have to figure out that she is complicit."
Martin's spare and estimable prose effectively turn the lock of Manon's cage. Her thoughts aren't so much reactions to plot developments as they are the plot developments; she can only see so far down the road. "I wanted to write in the domestic sphere," Martin says, "because it has to take place in the domestic sphere if it's going to take hold in a society." In the irresponsible, unforgettable mind of Manon Gaudet, Martin proves her poisoned point.
- In her latest novel Property, Valerie Martin attempts to create a new impression of the Old South.