Book review: Property by Valerie Martin

Posted by Bel. The time is 6:52pm here in Wellington, NZ.

I spent my Christmas break doing a whole lot of nothing. We watched DVD after DVD, pausing only to eat whatever was in reach, and reading in 100 pages chunks. It was very relaxing, so much so that I promptly got sick, developing a nasty case of pink eye. (PINK EYE!!)

The only copy of Property, by Valerie Martin, available at my beloved Wellington Central Library was a large print edition. This was a boon for me and my gammy eye.

However, I do find it hard to shake off the impression that large print books are for 'remedial readers'. You know... Even when the writing is lucid and evocative, I still get the impression the message is being dumbed down and that the over-size print is because I'm just not capable I'm playing with the big kids.

It was particularly tricky with this book, which told the tale of American slavery times from a (relatively) privileged white woman's perspective. Its portrayal of a household where the plantation owner blatantly fathered children with a black slave was startlingly honest, but the characters were all so unlikeable and with so little growth it was hard to understand what the message was.

Manon is freed from the marriage she hates when their plantation is destroyed in an attack by rebel slaves. Her despicable husband is killed thanks to the actions of her African American parallel, the servant called Sarah, who escapes on the night.

But Manon's obsession in life then becomes the hunting down of her 'property', determined that the slave be returned to her. She is not jealous of Sarah's status as bearer of her husband's children, nor does she actually need her around as a servant, she is just transfixed with the concept of what she owns must be returned to her, regardless of whether that be a human being or not.

I think I was mostly disappointed that the theme of oppression did not seem to be resolved. Manon's circumstances change but she was still entrapped in the same mode of thinking; Sarah made a break for freedom but her fate ultimately was to serve without question. Maybe this was the point? It certainly got across the mentality of the time and how slavery managed to persist for so long.

Apparently Property was a total shocker when it won the Orange Prize in 2003, beating out Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith, and that does not surprise me. I mean, it would have surprised me hugely at the time. Yeah, you know what I mean.

A note on the cover: The cover pictured above is not the cover I had. The cover on the large print edition was a really weird, heavily detailed and yet naive illustration of a ye olde sitting room with a fireplace. Not a good choice really, considering. And also ugly.

Property by Valerie Martin. Not recommended.
Published in 2003. Set in New Orleans in the mid-1800s.
#44 from 'The List'

2 thoughts on “Book review: Property by Valerie Martin”

  1. The weirdest is reading Lionel Shriver in big print - completely surreal with her extensive vocabulary and ridiculously long words being presented with that kiddie-print feel.

    Property sounds depressing.

  2. I think in my dotage (when I have to stop kidding myself about being half-blind) I will have to just read your Nora Roberts type books, bc it is so hard to take seriously anything in large print.

    Bodice rippers ahoy!