Tag Archives: Valerie Martin

PROPERTY by Valerie Martin

Property Today I finished my second book by Valerie Martin – Property. The first one I read was Trespass (reviewed here) – a powerful and disturbing book about war, violence and trespasses into others' lives, lands and children. It was one of my most memorable reads of 2008.

Propertyis no less disturbing. It's the story of Manon, a white woman in the 1820s living on a plantation in Louisiana. She is married to a plantation owner whom she despises, in part because of his relationship with her slave, Sarah. Like Trespass, the title of the book – Property – is a versatile one. It ultimately refers to the various ways in which people can become property to others, through slavery, through marriage, through legal arrangement, through birth.

Manon is desperately unhappy about her situation, but the unfeeling and inhumane way she treats the slaves on her husband's property is a powerful reminder of this country's most shameful period. Manon is innately hypocritical; just as she deeply resents her husband's power to circumscribe her life and squander her money, she keeps a tight hold on Sarah and is incapable of recognizing the parallels between their two lives. She resents Sarah to such a degree that she simply cannot ascribe to her any real emotion. I suppose that is part of Martin's message, that slavery was capable of existing because white people saw their slaves as nothing more than property, and therefore enjoyed an unburdened conscience about how they lived. Such a mindset seems so abhorrent today that it is hard to believe that less than 200 years ago, it was so pervasive.

Martin is a spare, clean writer, capable of delivering devastating lines of dialogue or description with barely a flourish. As with Trespass, I found myself reading Property carefully, so as not to miss a single understated word. Martin does not shy away from disturbing plot developments - instead, she seems to relish them. Yet nothing in her books is extraneous or overdone.

Property wasn't exactly what I expected. I thought it would be more universal and  less character-driven. Instead, it's a story of about deeply flawed and ultimately unhappy people told against the backdrop of an institution that seems almost unthinkable today. Regardless, I strongly recommend it, and Valerie Martin in general.

TRESPASS by Valerie Martin

Back in October, I wrote about a book called Trespass by Valerie Martin.

I read it, and highly recommend it. It’s an intense, sad, upsetting book, but well worth it. It’s also one of those books that is so engaging that I found myself irritated at anyone who interrupted me while I was reading it, including the poor woman giving me a pedicure who only wanted to know what shape I wanted for my toes.

The story opens as Chloe, a middle-aged book illustrator living outside New York City, is meeting her son Toby’s Croatian girlfriend Salome for the first time. She immediately dislikes Salome, believing that she is trying to trap her son into a relationship, marriage, maybe a green card. At the same time, Chloe is also dealing with a roving poacher on her land, who hunts rabbits and fires rifle shots that leave her deeply unsettled.

As the book goes on, the stories and characters widen and become more complex. Martin introduces Toby’s historian father, Salome’s immigrant father and brother, and ultimately, her presumed dead mother Jelena, who somehow survived the horror of the Serbian-Croatian genocide.

Trespass is aptly named. Xenophobia runs strongly through the book, manifesting itself in emotions ranging from discomfort and suspicion to hatred.  The book opens as the U.S. invades Iraq –ironically, I finished it on the war’s fifth anniversary — compounding the theme of violence and invasion. Yet the trespasses are personal and emotional as well – such as Salome’s unwelcome entry into Chloe’s family, the poacher on the land, Salome’s angry, violent brother.

I received a review copy of this book, and tucked in with it was a article from Bookpage. In it, Martin is quoted: “I was conscious early on that the book was about both the fear and the attraction of foreignness, which I think Americans feel particularly…. The notion of people who live in the light, and those who come from the dark is so important to that book, and I liked the idea that Americans live in realms of light and live in fear of the intrusion of the realms of darkness.”

The story of Jelena’s horrific survival of the genocide is haunting. And what I found most compelling from Martin’s story was the conclusion that sometimes experiences like living through a war or losing a parent or child so indelibly mark us that we never recover, never return to the people we were before.  The tragedy of war is its inescapable legacy of damage.

No, this isn’t a light book. But it is very readable and compelling and I had trouble putting it down. Martin’s gift as a writer was summed up perfectly by Booklist: “Martin is a coolly dispassionate storyteller with a narrative voice that is at once inviting and disquieting.” I completely agree – her style is spare, which ultimately draws the reader in rather than alienating.

I have some issues with the ending – as I often do – but I don’t want to give anything away so I will keep those thoughts to myself.

Highly recommended.