I avoided Valerie Martin's Property because of the disturbing subject matter: slavery in Louisiana in the early 19th Century. But I decided to read it after I read The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, earlier this year. I knew that reading Property would erase any of the sweet taste that was left after reading The Help. If The Help was too light, or oversimplified, I knew that Property would not be. It would remind me of the horrors, in case I needed that.
Property is dark, violent and unflinching in its look at what slavery does to slaves and to slave owners. It is told from the point of view of Manon, a white woman who is almost as much the property of her autocratic husband as the slaves are. We also meet Manon's maid Sarah, a young slave who is forced into a sexual relationship with Manon's husband, and who has borne two children by him.
Manon is angry and self-absorbed. Sarah is trapped. As contemporary readers we might think that Manon and Sarah would ally themselves against a common enemy, Manon's husband, but that is impossible. The great divide between slave and owner is too difficult to cross and neither woman can help the other.
Manon's voice is distinctly contemporary without seeming anachronistic. You can't like her, but you can root for her. Sarah is more enigmatic. You can imagine what she wants but you can never really know her. Martin wisely chooses not to take us inside Sarah's head; she understands that there is no way as a 21st Century woman that she can accurately reflect what it's like to be Sarah. This is what makes Property so much better than The Help, this lack of presumption on the author's part.