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Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

‘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.’

I’d planned to read the first few chapters of Conjure Women, but the story grabbed me and just wouldn’t let go, and it was 3am before I was willing to put the book down, and that was only because I’d finished it. Conjure Women is a brilliant and haunting read, beautifully written and heart wrenching in all that the story encompasses. The novel alternates between two time periods, that of Rue’s youth in slaverytime and her life as a young woman in freedomtime, after the passing of her mother and the destruction of the home of the white family that had owned hers and all those in her community.

Rue grows up as a daughter of a woman who is respected within her community and known to be able to weave spells and magic that can both aid and hinder others. Families, primarily other women, put their faith in Miss Bay Belle to help them both in terms of medical health and in producing curses that impact their rivals or those that have done them wrong, in a world where nothing is certain and ‘magic’ is one of the only things that feels that might help in taking back a measure of the control that has been stripped from their lives. While her mother is all too painfully aware of what governs their lives and who they cannot trust (for how can you trust someone who considers you an object and possession to be used and hurt at their whims?), the lines have been blurred for Rue, who is sometimes certain that the master’s white daughter, Varina, is her friend, and at others fails to quite grasp the extent of the differences that society has built between them. In her youth and ignorance, Varina fails to grasp her often insensitive behaviour and cannot understand that, in sometimes wanting what Rue has, she is only highlighting that she already has whatever she wishes and is trying to claim what of Rue’s world that she can in an intrusive and selfish fashion. Neither girl seems quite aware of where the lines between them are, each of them exerting power where they can when distressed, yet it’s Varina who appears more blindly ignorant, underestimating Rue’s intelligence and emotional understanding to get her way, knowing, if nothing else, that she cannot be denied. As Rue grows and she begins to comprehend that her friendship is really a relationship of a mistress and her slave, she begins to take opportunities to get her own back, knowing that Varina will not suspect her. The relationships between the women in the novel are complicated, all being at the mercy of men and masters in different manners, none seemingly able to have complete faith in each other, knowing it will only take one misstep, one rumour or remark, to ruin them and worse.

May Belle’s position within the community affords her the trust and respect of her fellow slaves, and leaves her as the keeper of the master’s secrets, not out of respect, but because he knows full well that she must obey him and that, as his property, he holds her life in his hands and can use that power to make her do as he requires. The master’s behaviour is beyond abhorrent, his actions something that are repulsive and among the most unsettling things in the novel, but the worst of it is knowing that how he treats his slaves is what actually occurred in this time period. He not only forces his female slaves to fulfil his sexual needs against their will, he also forces the men and women he owns to sleep together so that he can increase the number of slaves that he has to work his land. Unsurprisingly, any children he fathers are not acknowledged and are considered his slaves, left to the mercies of his cruel and arrogant white children.

Following May Belle’s death, Rue’s place in the world shifts quite dramatically. While she has taken on her mother’s duties – if somewhat against her will – events conspire to have the slaves still living on the plantation unable to find this same trust in her, primarily owing to the delivery of a baby that suggests bad omens and that he is an unnatural child. Her troubles are worsened by the arrival of a preacher who is determined to convert them to Christianity, and while May Belle’s magic was considered to be traditional and something learned of women going back generations, the changing world brands Rue a dangerous woman involved in witchcraft. In the secrets she has to keep to protect herself and others, she is left with very little with which to defend herself, often inadvertently playing into the rumours, and her hand is forced to go against her conscience out of desperation on more than occasion.

Conjure Women is a moving and thoroughly enthralling read, out on April 7th. Thank you to 4th Estate Books for sending me a copy for review!