Sugar Money by Jane Harris

Review published on November 22, 2017.

Sugar Money is a very entertaining historical novel, not a great one but a very good one that has a fantastic sense of place and time. Once again Harris has chosen to give voice to an under privileged character, but she is really stretching herself this time with the story of Lucien, a plantation slave of les Frères de la Charité on the Island of Martinique. The writing is vivid and truthful and the mix of “Kréyòl”, French and English is expertly suggested. The narrator Lucien (he thinks he is fourteen years old) is a wonderful voice. This is the triumph of the novel, a truly memorable and endearing character. When Harris introduces us to the shepherd at the beginning of the book he appears full of bravado. That soon vanishes and we realise how vulnerable and unworldly he is. That is why Harris has chosen to tell this story as an adventure because we see everything through Lucien’s eyes. He is bright and inquisitive but far too unschooled in the machinations of the priests or the English. On this journey, a rites of passage, Lucien learns about white colonial values, personal empowerment and the brutal limits of life as a slave.

It is all about the sugar money, the profits from the cane fields accruing from the sweat and blood of the slaves. This is as true for the priests of Fréres de la Charité (what a misnomer!), as for the English “Goddams”. Harris has reimagined a real event from history, a snippet she picked up in Grenada. Turning it into a fascinating tale that illuminates the injustice of slavery but is also a story of sibling rivalry, of the loss of innocence and of the triumph of the human spirit, even in the worst of times.

Sugar Money opens in Martinique but is mostly set on Grenada in 1765. It is the story of Lucien and his brother. Emile is roughly twice Lucien’s age and the brothers have seen little of each other over the years. They are brought together for a mission by Father Cléophas. The war between the British and the French has been over for nearly three years but now the “Goddams” occupy Grenada. The Charité left 42 slaves on Grenada when they fled to Martinique. Now disease and over work has killed so many of the local slaves that the priests hatch a plan to steal those left on Grenada to make the Martinique plantation profitable again. Father Cléophas tells the brothers he will give them a power of attorney signed by the British to bring the slaves back. The Order owes money to the French Government and a British financier. For Lucien this mission sounds like an adventure but savvy Emile know that father Cléophas is lying about the permission to take the slaves. The brothers are now faced with the most difficult and perilous challenge they will ever face. Cléophas knows that British doctor Bryant and Scottish overseer Bell will do everything they can to keep the slaves on Grenada. Both brothers are connected to the slaves on Grenada by love and memory, Cléophas is counting on that forcing them to find a way to achieve his plan. When they arrive on Grenada they have little choice but to try and carry out Cléophas’ order but things instantly become perilous.

There are many beautiful drawn characters in Sugar Money. Emile is the strong silent big brother, older and wise enough to have no illusions about the evil intent of the white settlers, be they priests or soldiers. There are also strong females populating the story – Céleste, Zabette and Angélique. Most notable overhanging the novel is the malign presence of Cléophas, a priest who cares much more for money than charity.

The sense of foreboding and the weight of circumstance that haunts the brothers’ mission is palpable. The quiet way Harris reveals the horror of the slave trade gives her descriptions of atrocities real force. This is more about the personal story than slavery per se, there are some better fiction writers on the general topic (my own favourites would include Madison Smart Bell, Toni Morrison, Fred D’aguliar, Barry Unsworth and more recently Colson Whitehead). However, Harris has a real empathy for her characters and you are in no doubt of the iniquity of the slave trade. This is a very thoughtful and compassionate read.

I first read Jane Harris when she published her first novel The Observations, the story of a young Irish servant girl turned heroine. This story is a match for that wonderful tale, a really rewarding read.

Paul Burke 4/5

Sugar Money by Jane Harris
Faber & Faber 9780571336920 hbk Oct 2017

dir97 pbk?

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