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.