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Author: Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Property, by Valerie Martin

Property, by Valerie Martin

The title of this short novel could be read in multiple ways: “property” refers to the slave, Sarah, owned by the main character, a white woman named Manon. It could also refer to Manon herself, who is in a way the “property” of her husband. When Manon inherits her mother’s house, it is by law her husband’s property, since she “belongs” to him.

Property was first published in 2003 and won the Orange Prize for Fiction by a female author (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). It is told in first person through the voice of Manon, a middle-class Creole woman in Louisiana before the Civil War. As a reader, I had a complicated reaction to Manon. I felt sorry for her because of her marriage to a boorish, sadistic man, and I was rooting for her to find a way to escape from the marriage. But I also found her selfish and cold: she has little sympathy for Sarah, who is her husband’s mistress, and who is also searching for a way to escape – this time not just from one man, but from slavery itself.

The story takes place during a time of slave unrest and revolt. Manon is aware of the situation, but is mostly concerned with herself. The author, Valerie Martin, has created a complex character to allow the reader to experience, through Manon’s voice, what it would be like to be a white woman slave-owner. What contorted arguments would a woman like that have to believe in order to maintain the status quo? Yet as distasteful as Manon is, Martin manages to make her a sympathetic character. As a child, she lost her father. Because of her lack of wealth, she felt pressure to marry a man she didn’t love. She is not able to have children, but her husband fathers children with her own slave.

Each scene in this novella is rich with tension and layered with nuances of character.

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

The unnamed narrator of The Blood of Flowers is a young woman of 17th century Iran who has fallen on hard times. The book begins with the narrator and her mother huddled in old clothes in a cold, leaking shelter, speaking in whispers to avoid disturbing others sleeping nearby. But the narrator reveals that she wasn’t always in such dire straits: “Only a few months before I had worn a thick velvet robe patterned with red roses, with silk trousers underneath. I had painted my eyes with kohl, perfumed my clothes with incense, and awaited my lover, who had torn the clothes from my body in a room kept as warm as summer” (p. 5).

She blames her difficult life on a comet that passed over her village and, according to the astrologer, brought bad luck. If astrology plays a part, the narrator’s own personality is also a factor: in a culture where women are supposed to be obedient, she takes risks which sometimes work out, and sometimes don’t.

Shortly after the comet’s appearance, the narrator, then 15 years old, leaves her village for the city of Isfahan. Amirrezvani made three trips to Iran while researching and writing the book, and she is clearly enamored of Isfahan: at times the book reads like a travel guide. Yet she also brings out the glamour and excitement of that thriving city. Isfahan is a center of carpet designers and manufacturers, and the narrator persuades her uncle to teach her to design and knot world-class carpets.

The narrator also aims to marry a wealthy man and thus secure a comfortable future for herself and her mother. Unfortunately, she has no dowry. She strives to earn more from her carpets, but is thwarted by jealous relatives.

In addition to the main story line, the novel also includes traditional Iranian tales as well as two tales created by the narrator and her mother which bookend the narrative. These two tales are integral to the plot and characters, and both are poignant and insightful. The ending tale, in particular, is haunting.

Occasionally the plot of the novel is forced, but for the most part I was intrigued by this story of a woman coming of age and struggling to find her own way in a society designed to keep women hidden and dependent. After reading this book, I have a sense of the human drama and history behind every Persian rug.

What to read for African-American History Month?

What to read for African-American History Month?

February is African-American History Month. The following historical novels by and about African-American women are ones that I have read and recommend. Please feel free to leave a comment with your recommended historical novels by and about African-American women. (By the way, the photo above, taken by Thomas Askew, shows an unidentified African American woman, and is part of the image collection at the Library of Congress.)


Kindred, by Octavia Butler

In this time-travel novel, a modern-day African-American woman is repeatedly pulled back in time to rural Maryland in the early 1800’s. It turns out that she is being somehow summoned to save the life of the son of a slave-owner who, she discovers, is one of her own ancestors. Each time she is pulled back, her life is in more danger. This gripping, thought-provoking novel is not to be missed.


River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

This poignant, beautifully written novel takes place in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in the 1920’s, and is based on stories the author was told by her family. It follows the life of young Johnnie Mae as she grows up in this segregated community.


I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Conde

This short novel is based on the historical figure of Tituba, an Afro-Caribbean slave who was accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Because so little is known about the real Tituba, Conde had free reign to imagine her life. Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death.


Beloved, by Toni Morrison

The searing Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. It is the story of an escaped slave living in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1850’s, who is haunted by the ghost of her daughter.


The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, The Color Purple is written in the form of letters by Celie, an uneducated but hard-working black woman in rural Georgia in the early 20th century. It is hailed as a feminist classic, and was made into a movie in 1985.


Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

This is a non-racist alternative to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. First published in 1966, Jubilee is a fictionalized account of the author’s great-grandmother’s experiences before, during, and after the Civil War. You will fall in love with the main character, Vyry, and will not want this novel to end.

Interview with Margot Livesey

Interview with Margot Livesey

I am so excited to present this interview with Margot Livesey, author of Eva Moves the Furniture and many other novels (including her latest, Mercury.) I reviewed Eva Moves the Furniture in an earlier post, and I wanted to ask Margot how she came to write the novel, which encompasses so much: a fascinating ghost story, a tender mother-daughter novel, and the chronicle of a woman discovering who she is.

You mention on your web site that this novel took you 13 years to write. Why? What difficulties did you experience?

Margot: I had already written and published one novel, Homework, when I began Eva Moves the Furniture. The novel was based on the life of my mother who died when I was two and a half and, naively, I thought that the material was so interesting—my dead mother! ghosts! —that I didn’t really need to do anything to keep the readers’ attention. It took me years to figure out that I needed a plot and a conflict and all the things novels usually need.

How closely did you stick to your mother’s life? How much inventing did you do?

Margot: I know very little about my mother’s life so most of the novel is invented. I do regret that for artistic reasons I had to change some of the few facts that I did have. The real Eva actually spent much of the Second World War working as a nurse in London and not, as she does in my novel, in Glasgow. And I brought forward the timing of her marriage, my birth and her death.

The ghostly companions are a major part of this novel. Are they based on fact?

Margot: Yes. Among the handful of stories I have about Eva is one in which she sees “people” who are largely invisible to those around her. I found this fascinating and also the fact that my adopted father, who told me this story, described Eva’s attitude to these “people” as very matter of fact.

I think this novel could be classified as magical realism. What do you think?

Margot:I would agree although not the kind of magical realism in which many strange things happen—Eva’s world is just like ours except for one major difference.

Do you feel like writing this novel brought you closer to your mother?

Margot: Writing the novel did make me feel, for the first time, that I had a mother. But it also obliterated the historical person with the fictional character I’d created.

This feels like a deeply spiritual book, although religion and spirituality are not overtly discussed. Did you mean for it to be a spiritual book?

Margot: Yes. When I finally found my way to the version of the novel that exists between covers I realized that a major theme of the novel was about our relationships with the dead which must surely be a spiritual question for everyone over a certain age.

What was your research process like?

Margot: Research was what finally enabled me to write the novel. For many years I had thought that the novel would be purely imagined but then it finally dawned on me that Eva had grown up into the Second World War. I began to do research in books and archives which led me to the discovery of the role plastic, or reconstructive, surgery had played during the War as doctors operated on the many casualties of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. And that research in turn led me to my plot.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about historical fiction or this particular book?

Margot: After my many years of struggling with Eva, it makes me very happy that it is out in the world and still finding readers. The novel was published on 9/11—a very dark day—and for several months no one was thinking much about fiction, but then people began to write to me saying that they had read Eva and found it comforting. Of course death changes everything, but we do still have a relationship with the dead. We keep talking to them and that relationship keeps changing, and growing.

Thank you, Margot, for these interesting thoughts about life and death, and how to turn fact into fiction. For more about Margot, please see her web site: http://margotlivesey.com/

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true-life novel” because although she based it on the life of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, she tells the story in first person (re-creating Lily’s voice) and she also imagined details to fill in the gaps of the real story.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Walls says, “My grandmother was quite a character.” She is indeed. Her voice jumps off every page as we follow her through the adventures of her childhood, youth, and middle age in the American southwest in the first half of the twentieth century. The opening chapter tells of how Lily, 10 years old, saves herself and her siblings when they get caught in a flash flood on their family’s homestead in Texas. Lily is integral to the success of the family’s fortunes: from the age of five, she has been helping her physically disabled father to train carriage horses.

When the family moves to New Mexico, Lily is allowed to attend a Catholic boarding school, which she loves. However, after just half a year, her father fails to pay the tuition and she has to go home. She discovers that her father has used the tuition money to buy four Great Danes from Sweden. Lily is furious, but has to accept the situation. Drawing on her Catholic faith, she looks for the door that God is said to open when he closes a window, and jumps at the chance to take a test to become a teacher. She passes, and at the age of 15, rides her horse 500 miles through New Mexico into Arizona, to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. Because of World War I, teachers are in short supply.

From this point on, Lily supports herself, visiting her family only occasionally. When her first job ends with the end of the war, Lily decides to seek her fortune in Chicago. I loved tagging along on the ride of Lily’s life. Although the way is sometimes bumpy, she doesn’t let it stop her from pursuing her goals, whether learning to drive an automobile, finishing her education, taking flying lessons, or figuring out how to make ends meet during the Great Depression. As the title suggests, Lily’s life is half-way between the freedom and danger of being wild, and the safety, rules and strictures of civilization.

Lily, a born teacher, tells the stories of her life to her daughter Rosemary, in the hopes that Rosemary will learn from them. Rosemary, in turn, tells these stories to her daughter—Jeannette Walls. Although Lily died when Jeannette was only eight, her memory and stories remained in the family, and now, thanks to the sure-footed writing of Jeannette Walls, we can all benefit from spending time with the determined, energetic, resourceful, and big-hearted Lily Casey Smith.

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

I first read Eva Moves the Furniture when it came out in 2001. I enjoyed it then, and the characters stayed with me through the years. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it even more.

The novel begins in Scotland in 1920, with the birth of Eva and with her mother’s death. As a small child living a placid rural life with her elderly father and her aunt, Eva realizes that she has two companions that only she can see: a teenaged girl and an older woman. These mysterious figures are usually helpful to her, but also embarrassing in that they make her feel different from other people. They follow her as she enters nursing school in nearby Glasgow, and as she takes her first job as a nurse. The title refers to the fact that these companions sometimes re-arranged furniture and objects in Eva’s room.

The identity of the companions is revealed gradually, as Eva learns more about life and the world beyond death. Yet their mystery is not the focus of this novel. Instead, their presence is simply a fact of life for Eva, and we come to accept them as she does. World War II begins, and in the process of helping patients who have been severely injured, she matures and her understanding deepens. The novel is an unfolding of Eva’s discovery of herself as she goes out into the world.

Eva Moves the Furniture is told in first person, from Eva’s perspective, and it is only later in the book that we realize she has been telling the story to one particular person all along. The novel is based on the life of the author’s mother.

My one minor complaint is that the novel starts with half a page about an Italian surgeon in Africa. This tidbit is tangentially related to a certain character in the book—but only if you squint and look sideways—and I am still puzzled by its prominence on the first page of this book.

Other than that, this gentle novel is full of beauty, truth, and emotion.

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

What gives people the courage to risk their lives for political freedom? That question spurred Julia Alvarez to write In the Time of the Butterflies based on the true story of the four Mirabal sisters, three of whom were activists with the code name “butterflies” in mid-twentieth century Dominican Republic. Alvarez, who is from the Dominican Republic, became interested in their stories because of the parallels with her own family: her father had also been involved in underground activities against the brutal Trujillo, and the three activist sisters were murdered just months after Alvarez’s family escaped to the United States.

Alvarez’s re-telling humanizes these legendary women. The story is told through the voices of all four sisters, starting in 1938, when Minerva Mirabal learns about Trujillo’s crimes from a classmate whose family members have been murdered. Although the sisters are known for their political activism, we get to know them as daughters, friends, wives, and mothers. Alvarez makes each sister unique: Patria, the eldest, cares most about her Catholic faith and her husband and children; Dedé is the organized, practical one who takes charge of the family store; Minerva struggles to become a lawyer and never backs down; and Maria Teresa is interested in young men, clothes, and following in the footsteps of Minerva.

The structure of the novel is unique and effective. It is divided into three parts, each beginning with Dedé, the only surviving sister, speaking to a Dominican-American visitor in 1994, and continuing with a memory from Dedé’s point of view. Then, each sister tells a portion of the story in her own voice. We learn what pushed each woman to become involved in the underground revolution despite the danger. Although the sisters are fighting against a brutal dictator, there are moments of humor, such as the sisters’ nicknames for prison guards, and their descriptions of pompous government officials.

Despite the tragedy, the ending is beautiful and poignant. I became so interested in the real sisters behind this novel that I looked them up. The real Dedé died in 2014. Some children of the sisters have become politicians in a democratic Dominican Republic. The day of their death, November 25, has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria

Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria

Waterlily was originally written in the 1940’s but not published until 1988, after the author’s death. This novel about the life of a Dakota woman and her family in the mid-1800’s, just as European-Americans were beginning to encroach on the land where the Plains Indians lived, is based on the author’s ancestors. November is a great time to read this book, since we are celebrating Native American Heritage Month.

Ella Cara Deloria was born on the Yankton Sioux reservation and worked as a Sioux translator and ethnographic field researcher. She translated and wrote scholarly works about traditional Sioux life and customs, but in order to make this lifestyle come alive for readers, she decided to write a novel. The delightful, insightful result is Waterlily. The title refers to one of the main characters, but in reality the novel is about Waterlily’s entire family, since for a Dakota woman or man, kinship ties are akin to life itself.

The novel begins as Waterlily’s mother, Blue Bird, gives birth alone beside a stream. We soon learn that Blue Bird is in a sad situation: she and her grandmother got lost while fleeing an attack, and have been taken in by an unrelated camp. Furthermore, Blue Bird’s husband is jealous and mean.

During the first half of the novel we hardly see Waterlily; she’s busy growing up. Instead, we follow the stories of Blue Bird and other members of the camp circle. Dakota customs and rituals are explained in detail, and sometimes the novel seems like an ethnographic study. However, the traditions are an important part of the life of the characters, and it would be difficult for readers to understand the characters’ motivations, actions, and decisions without understanding their culture.

Once Waterlily reaches the age of 15, the novel follows her as she begins to notice young men, and as she decides how closely to adhere to the social rules she has been taught. Waterlily experiences great joy and tragedy, and Deloria makes sure that we, as readers, understand the significance of what is said and done.

Waterlily’s family has little contact with the European-Americans, although they do trade “American” horses, and the women covet flannel cloth as an alternative to hide clothing and blankets. Metal plates, guns, and other goods from the Europeans are also occasionally in use. Waterlily and her family have very little sense of what the Europeans will do to their way of life, although at one point a character voices fear that the buffalo will all be killed by the white men.

I loved being immersed in the culture and lives of Waterlily and her family, and I didn’t want this novel to end.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

I’d never heard of Sarah Waters until very recently, and now I’m astonished that this enormously talented woman-centered author wasn’t already a favorite of mine! Now that I’ve read one book, I’m sure to read more by her.

The Paying Guests almost feels like three novels in one. It takes place over the course of several months in 1922 near London, with the same characters, but the book’s feel shifts from a light domestic drama to something much more intense and dark as the novel progresses. The plot of the novel takes a long time to get going, yet I was interested enough in the characters and their minor conflicts to keep reading. At about 200 pages, the plane is ready and fueled, and the story takes off.

The novel starts as a married couple arrive to live in rented rooms at the decaying home of Frances Wray and her mother. Frances is a single woman who frets about cleaning and cooking. But soon it comes out that she is not single by choice: she has given up her woman lover because the relationship upset her mother. She befriends Lilian, the wife. Their growing closeness is the subject of the first part of the book. In the second part, Frances and Lilian find themselves in a complicated situation and face a moral dilemma. The third part involves the consequences of their decision.

In an essay in The Guardian, Waters states that the novel is about “the negotiations that must be made by a passionate relationship as it braves the tangle of courage and cowardice, generosity and meanness, splendid ambition and awful misjudgment that constitutes ordinary life.” Waters succeeds in making 1922 feel “ordinary” – details of post-World War I life in London are worked in naturally, and I hardly felt I was reading a historical novel, so convincing was the setting. She also succeeds in making both Frances and Lilian ordinary in a complex, nuanced way. Their actions are believable and understandable given the situations they find themselves in.

My only complaint is that although the novel is over 500 pages long, when I got to the end I did not think the story had been resolved. I felt as if Lilian and Frances still had big decisions ahead of them. But perhaps that was by design: it is left to the reader to speculate on what they will do next, given what we know of their personalities and situations in life.

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

If you are looking for a non-racist alternative to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, here it is: Jubilee. Written by an African-American woman and first published in 1966, Jubilee is a fictionalized account of the author’s great-grandmother’s experiences before, during, and after the Civil War.

The photo above shows Walker’s great-grandmother, the “Vyry” of the novel. She took after her white slave-owner father in the color of her skin. I found this photo on the U Space Gallery web site.

Jubilee covers the same time period as Gone with the Wind; they both take place in Georgia; they are both based on family stories passed down; and they both showcase strong women characters. However, unlike Gone with the Wind, which is told from the point of view of white slave owners, Jubilee is told largely from the point of view of African-Americans. While Gone with the Wind insists that blacks were better off enslaved, and includes black characters who claim they don’t want to be free, Jubilee shows the true struggles of blacks, whether they were born free, or born into slavery and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jubilee is the better novel in many ways. In addition to its focus on African-American experiences, it includes sections showing the thoughts and experiences of slave owners and poor, struggling white families, so readers get a more complete, accurate view of the time period. While towards the end Gone with the Wind suffers from a rushed and overly compressed story line, Jubilee is well developed throughout.

Jubilee follows the story of Vyry, the daughter of a black slave mother and her white slave owner. As mentioned above, Vyry looks white and bears a strong resemblance to her half-sister Lillian, who is the master’s daughter by his white wife. However, the master never acknowledges Vyry as his daughter, and continues to enslave her, even allowing her to be whipped. Vyry wants to marry a free black man, Randall Ware, but her master won’t allow it. Randall flees north and joins the Union Army.

Will Vyry and Randall be united after the war? Will Vyry manage to send her children to school? The novel answers these questions while also showing the day-to-day struggles of Vyry before and during the war, and as she tries to find a place to settle down after the war ends. Jubilee is the classic Civil War novel everyone should be reading. And 2016, being the 50th anniversary of its original publication, is the perfect year to read this book.