‘After Miss May Belle died, they said the river swelled up fit to weep for her. Living water, it swallowed up the old, proud stalks of cotton. And Miss Rue, the only one left to sustain her mama’s curse, found herself afeared of what the river water might dredge up, secret things better left hidden.’
The pale-skinned, black-eyed baby is a bad omen. That’s one thing the people on the old plantation are sure of. The other is that Miss Rue – midwife, healer, crafter of curses – will know what to do.
But for once Rue doesn’t know. Times have changed since her mother Miss May Belle held the power to influence the life and death of her fellow slaves. Freedom has come. The master’s Big House lies in ruins. But this new world brings new dangers, and Rue’s old magic may be no match for them.
When sickness sweeps across her tight-knit community, Rue finds herself the focus of suspicion. What secrets does she keep amidst the charred remains of the Big House? Which spells has she conjured to threaten their children? And why is she so wary of the charismatic preacher man who promises to save them all?
Rue understands fear. It has shaped her life and her mother’s before her. And now she knows she must face her fears – and her ghosts – to find a new way forward for herself and her people.
First things first: I bought the hardback copy of this book last month with my birthday money from my lovely bookish auntie, and the physical book itself is a thing of beauty. The gorgeous cover attracted me as much as the promise of the story within, and after reading the book and appreciating the meaning behind the plants, flowers and the double-sided doll, I am so glad that I own a copy of this beautiful book. I can say straightaway that I will be rereading this one.
Conjure Women tells the story of Rue, born into slavery on a southern plantation, the daughter of the healer and midwife of the slave community, brought up to take her mother’s place. As the war approaches and Slaverytime is replaced by Freedomtime, the Black inhabitants of the former plantation create their new life in almost total isolation from the outside world. Rue finds her position challenged by a sickness that descends upon the children of the community, and by the arrival of Bruh Abel, the preacher man who draws hope and trust away from Rue.
It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel. Afia Atakora plunges the reader into the era immediately before and after the American civil war with such assurance that I felt an instant confidence and trust in her storytelling abilities, and that confidence didn’t waver over the nearly-400 pages of this amazing book. From the start, I was utterly captivated by Rue as a character. She is a fascinating, complex character, her motivations and loyalties both nuanced and mutable, and I found her completely convincing. Although most of the novel is written in the third person, the voice that Atakora creates is strong and compelling, and, as with the very best of historical fiction, there is a real feeling of immediacy, of the past being reanimated before our eyes. Rue’s mother, May Belle, is also a deeply intriguing character, and the relationship between mother and daughter that plays out across the non-linear timeline of the book is deliciously complicated. Varina, Marse Charles’ daughter, is another well-drawn character; it would be easy to cast the white daughter of the plantation owner as a purely negative figure, but I found my sympathies towards her ebbing and flowing as the story progressed.
The plot is just as strong as the character development. I don’t want to give away too much in this review, but I found that the story hit precisely the right balance of surprising me with the unexpected and rewarding me with those precious ‘scenes I would like to see’ that a book which truly engrosses me as a reader has me predicting and longing for. The narrative is beautifully paced, twisting and turning enough to keep the reader absolutely hooked, but never sacrificing nuance or character development for the sake of a juicy plot point. I also adored the way in which, towards the end of the book, when the clever back and forth of the timeline has become comfortable, Atakora finds new and exciting ways of mixing up the narrative and raising it to ever more dazzling heights. And the prose is just stunning: the kind of writing that seems effortlessly gorgeous but is in fact carefully crafted and perfectly pitched.
Conjure Women is the sort of book which makes me jealous of those of you who haven’t read it yet, as you have all of its joys ahead of you. The blend of incredible prose, meticulous but lightly-worn research, a gripping plot and unforgettable characters make this book pretty damn close to my idea of the perfect read, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
Conjure Women is out now, published by 4th Estate in the UK and Random House in the US.