Sugar Money by Jane Harris – Book Review

Martinique. 1765. Emile and Lucien are given an impossible task. Their French master, Father Cleopas, needs more slaves to manage and work the new sugar plantations and rum distillery. His plan is anything but simple: the two brothers have to return discreetly to Grenada, the island they were born on but that’s now under British rule. There they have to convince the slaves, who are now considered British property, to return with them in secret to Martinique to work for their former French masters. The task seems far-fetched and exceptionally dangerous to the older Emile. But Lucien, who is just entering his teen years, looks forward to reconnecting with his brother during what he feels can only be a heroic adventure. Despite their personal feelings and reservations, the brothers have no choice but to obey their master and set off to Grenada…

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

Sugar Money by Jane Harris is based on a true story. Harris gives a fictional account of Lucian’s story after she received the original manuscript, written by a much older Lucian, along with some associated papers and letters. Harris’ narrative is well researched and handled with great sensitivity. Lucian remains the narrating voice and Harris’ confident representation of the French Creole language, and the depth of the main character, drives the story. This is what Harris had to say about the translation of the original manuscript:

“The original account is written throughout in the same neat copperplate hand, yet in a mixture of languages, with some parts rendered entirely in French and others in English, while the whole is broken up with numerous passages in what I have learned is a kind of early French Creole or Kreyol… I have retained a smattering of the Creole patois… For the most part, I have honoured the author’s rhythms and grammatical quirks…”

From Sugar Money by Jane Harris.

I knew this would not be a book with happy endings and warm moments, but I think some stories are worth reading because it increases our understanding and empathy. The harsh realities of slavery is explored, but Harris’ handling of the violence and horrors of this time refrains from sensationalism, even if it is shocking. Some of the events are upsetting, even more so considering her initial restraint. The story does not follow a classic story arch all the way through, as Harris has to balance staying true to the original narrative and writing fiction. This did influence my reading experience; I felt a little deflated and discouraged about two thirds through, but I kept going because I was invested in the characters.

“This was a rough part of the island, inhospitable for cultivation: all steep foothills, their spines descending to the sea, and scraggy woodland of black sage, dogwood and blackthorn. We soon found the coastal highway – the Chemin de Gouyave or Gouyave Road – and were about to cross inland to deeper forest when Emile drag me back into the undergrowth. Moments later, a portuese came around the bend, northward bound, swaying along with a springy step; black as a black-bone hen; her feet bare and on her head a trait of produce well wrap against the rain… She move so fast, she pass before our eyes like a leaf on the breeze. Splish-splash, she went, through the shallow muddy river… and was gone.”

Part of the novel’s appeal lies in the rich and engaging language.
Sugar Money by Jane Harris

It’s worth reading more about Martinique’s history to fully appreciate the historical context of the story: Slavery in the West Indies began with the arrival of European settlers in 1635. It’s estimated that between 1635 and 1789, 700 000 slaves were brought from Africa to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Dominque, three French colonies. By 1745, 65 000 of the 80 000 inhabitants of Martinique were slaves. The sugar industry, and subsequently the alcohol industry, ensured the financial fortune of Martinique during the 18th century and the slaves worked on the sugar plantations and in factories. (source: AZ Martinique)

Sugar Money shows the power of storytelling and how the process of writing, or telling a story, is a way to process the past. Harris is a talented writer who handles a difficult subject with great sensitivity. Her detailed research and preservation of the original narrative do her credit, and I’ve added her other books to my reading list. Sugar Money might not be for casual readers but I would highly recommend it to those who enjoy true stories and/ or are interested in the history of the Caribbean.

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Thank you for visiting the Wild Library blog. You might also like The Familiars by Stacey Halls if you enjoy fiction based on true stories. For more books, plants, and stories, follow the Wild Library blog on Instagram

Happy reading,

Chantelle

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