Valerie Martin’s Property delivers an eerily mesmerizing inquiry into slavery’s venomous effects on the owner and the owned. The year is 1828, the setting a Louisiana sugar plantation where Manon Gaudet, pretty, bitterly intelligent, and monstrously self-absorbed, seethes under the dominion of her boorish husband. In particular his relationship with her slave Sarah, who is both his victim and his mistress.
Set in the surreal heat of the antebellum south during a slave rebellion, Property takes the form of a dramatic monologue, bringing to the page a voice rarely heard in American fiction: the voice of a woman slaveholder. Manon Gaudet is pretty and petulant, self-absorbed and bored. She has come to a sugar plantation west of New Orleans as a bride, bringing with her a prized piece of property, the young slave Sarah, only to see Sarah become her husband’s mistress and bear his child. As the whispers of a slave rebellion grow louder and more threatening, Manon speaks to us of her past and her present, her longings and dreams in an uncensored, nerve-wracked, and perverse confession direct from the heart of moral darkness.
Exploring the permutations of Manon’s own obsession with Sarah against the backdrop of an impending slave rebellion, Property unfolds with the speed and menace of heat lightning, casting a startling light from the past upon the assumptions we still make about the powerful and powerful.
IT NEVER ENDS. I watched him through the spyglass to see what the game would be. There were five of them. He gets them all gathered at the river’s edge and they are nervous. If they haven’t done this before, they’ve heard about it. First he reads to them from the Bible. I don’t have to hear it to know what passage it is. Then they have to strip, which takes no time as they are wearing only linen pantaloons. One by one they must grasp the rope, swing over the water, and drop in. It’s brutally hot; the cool water is a relief, so they make the best of it. He encourages them to shout and slap at one another once they are in the water. Then they have to come out and do it again, only this time they hang on the rope two at a time, which means one has to hold on to the other. They had gotten this far when I looked.
Two boys were pulling the rope, one holding on while the other clutched his shoulders. They were laughing because they were slippery. The sun made their bodies glisten and steam like a horse’s flanks after a long run. The boy on the ground ran down the bank and off they went, out over the water, releasing the rope at the highest point of its arc and crashing into the smooth surface below like wounded black geese. He hardly watched them. He was choosing the next two, directing one to catch the rope on its return, running his hands over the shoulders of the other, which made the boy cower and study the ground. I couldn’t watch anymore.
They have to keep doing this, their lithe young bodies displayed to him in various positions. When he gets them up to three or four at a time, he watches closely. The boys rub against each other; they can’t help it. Their limbs become entwined, they struggle to hang on, and it isn’t long before one comes out of the water with his member raised. That’s what the game is for. This boy tries to stay in the water, he hangs his head as he comes out, thinking every thought he can to make the tumescence subside. This is what proves they are brutes, he says, and have not the power of reason. A white man, knowing he would be beaten for it, would not be able to raise his member.
He has his stick there by the tree; it is never far from him. The boys fall silent as he takes it up. Sometimes the offending boy cries out or tries to run away, but he’s no match for this grown man with his stick. The servant’s tumescence subsides as quickly as the master’s rises, and the latter will last until he gets to the quarter. If he can find the boy’s mother, and she’s pretty, she will pay dearly for rearing an unnatural child.
This is only one of his games. When he comes back to the house he will be in a fine humor for the rest of the day.
Often, as I look through the glass, I hear in my head an incredulous refrain: This is my husband, this is my husband.
( Continued… )
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