*I received a free ARC of this novel, with thanks to 4th Estate / Harper Collins. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: You’re free to decide your future. But how do you escape the ghosts of the past?
A stunning debut novel with echoes of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton
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.
Conjure Women is a story of the lengths we’ll go to save the ones we love, from a stunning new voice in fiction.
Throughout the ages, across the continents, people have always turned to women’s magic in times of need, and feared as much – or more – than they revered.
Healing, witchcraft, voodoo. Herbalists and wise women, midwives and hags. The magic that hovers around pain and comfort, childbirth and the rituals of death. All of the bodily functions – mistakes and miracles alike – all fall under the purview of women’s magic. And all are feared.
Humans also fear that which is different, other, as Rue finds to her dismay. For after years of following in her mother’s footsteps to heal, bring new life into waiting arms, and ease the passing of the pain of living, she still stands outside the plantation community. And all it takes is one baby born different – little Black-Eyed Bean – for her people to turn on both of them in fear.
Despite her bravado and her stoic mask, Rue is no stranger to fear. Born a slave, she has lived and breathed it from her first cry, but with times changed, masters fled (or dead) and slaves freed, surely she can now have the peace that she has wondered about. But will the shackles of her own mind – forged in her fear of change, fear of the unknown – allow her to embrace the new world, or will her clutch on the old ways hold her captive as the old house burns?
Rue is a compelling character to follow, as she is so strong and so determined to walk the hard paths life lays in front of her, and yet her insistence on doing the right thing is hampered by her blindness to the realities of the world around her and her inexperience of human nature, leading her to harm the very loved ones she aims to protect.
There is pain and suffering in this story. Afia Atakora brings the plantation to life – both before and after the Civil War – and doesn’t spare the details of what it means to treat people as chattals, as disposable, as less. Her characters live and breathe, and we feel what they feel as they love, weep, lash out in pain and anger. Reading Conjure Women I was immersed, as Rue in the river water, and only came up gasping for air as I turned the last page.
This is a rich and harrowing story – sharp, bitter and sweet – plunging the reader into secrets and fears, hope and deceit, with great technical skill and depth of emotion. A book to read, and keep, and buy for others – highly recommended.
She thought about smashing them, Varina’s porcelain babies, even took one by the head and raised her arm high and willed herself to do it, waiting on the satisfying crash and crunch, the sound of the porcelain skittering across the hardwood floor she’d just scrubbed clean. In the end she didn’t do it. Couldn’t. She set the doll back down in its outline of dust on the shelf, even smoothed down its hair like it was a child she was putting to sleep.
There was no use in fighting Marse Charles’s commandment. Varina and Rue, they were bound to their roles, and always had been, Rue figured, by something stronger than curse and conjure — simply, they’d been raised to be the women they had become.
– Afia Atakora, Conjure Women
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