Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including Italian Fever, The Great Divorce, and Mary Reilly. Her most recent book is a nonfiction work on St. Francis of Assisi: Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis. She resides in upstate New York.
Martin (Mary Reilly) re-creates antebellum New Orleans, examining how slavery affects owners as well as slaves. Manon Gaudet, the narrator, is the unhappy young wife of a sugar planter, disgusted by her husband's blatant sexual desires for both her and her slave Sarah. Contained here are all the trademarks of Martin's fiction-a female narrator sensitive to her own misery but somehow missing the big picture; the depiction of individuals and society as violent, self-absorbed, and base; and a mass of twisted sexual and interpersonal relations. The novel's subject lifts it above the ordinary. In chilling, crystalline prose, Manon disparages her husband's brutality but fails to recognize her own complicity as a slave-owner when she ruthlessly pursues Sarah after the woman escapes, thus betraying her own view of slaves as property, no different from an armchair. In this beautiful, disturbing novel, Martin has found an ideal match for her narrative obsessions. Property will resonate with readers long after it is finished. For all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/02.]-Andrea Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
"This fresh, unsentimental look at what slave-owning does to (and for) one's interior life must be a first. The writing-so prised and clean limbed-is a marvel." -Toni Morrison "Chilling...disturbing...intriguing. A compelling contest of wills between two women...against a chaotic backdrop of black night and leaping torchlight." -The New York Times "Sharply observer.... A strikingly unsentimental voice.... In fewer than 200 pages, Martin is able to summon up historical landscapes her readers have never seen." -Newsday "Quietly devastating.... Shows a dimension of American slavery that nonfiction could not get across.... A work of sustained irony.... As chilly and arresting a picture of slavery as you'll find anywhere." -The Boston Globe "It is possible that we have never heard a voice like this before... a timeless, chilling voice, eerily like the voice of the German people after the Holocaust... [With it] Valerie Martin opens a window on that evil of human nature that makes one group of people less than another." -Winston-Salem Journal "So riveting that once you start reading this slender novel, it's unlikely you'll put it down. A bitter, mesmerizing account of the caustic costs of slavery." -Detroit Free Press "Confirms that Martin is a vibrant force in American fiction... Martin uncovers the violent nature of slavery, ownership and property." -The New Orleans Times-Picayune "A ferociously honest book [on] a subject long wrapped in 'lies without end': race in America.... Manon is a shadow sister to Scarlett O'Hara, offering [us] the unvarnished voice of her time.... [This is] fiction that can remake the way we understand ourselves." -Salon "Martin's explorations of character are unsparing as she reveals both Manon and Sarah in all their desperate humanity. A brave and riveting book." -O, The Oprah Magazine "The real achievement is that Martin leaves us wondering what 'peculiar institutions' we are embracing in our own world." -The News & Observer "Brilliant... chilling clarity...Property is historical fiction that is both literary and literal in that it poetically bares a truth." -New York Daily News "Vivid and gripping. I read it in one gulp." -Marilyn French "Martin's writing is graceful, controlled and precise...The breadth of Martin's interests are remarkable. She moves around flawlessly in time and space: nothing frightens her." -Fay Weldon "As chilling and satisfying as anything she has written. . . . A fierce and uncompromising book, a bracing and cathartic work of art." -Chicago Tribune "In this stunningly powerful novel, Valerie Martin's gifts-a fearless originality and seemingly limitless perspective combined with a cool and elegant intelligence-are all on splendid display." -Barbara Gowdy "A wonderful novel, vivid, revealing." -Carol Shields "[Property] is a brilliant, chillingly revelatory piece of fiction, a work of craft, economy and such good merciless observation-one of those rare, crucial novels illuminating a history we think we know and understand so that after we've read it we'll never forget its truths." -Ali Smith "Tightly constructed [and] suspenseful. . . . Manon is a vividly presented voice, precociously cynical, mordantly amusing, despairing. . . . A subtly cadenced novel of racial and sexual transgressions." -The New York Review of Books "Fraught with tension, desperation, and rage, all masterfully sustained. . . . An unflinching depiction of our nation's most shameful historical chapter." -Los Angeles Times "Compelling. . . . A painful yet elegant study of . . . the authority of the mighty over the deprived. . . . Astonishing." -The Washington Post "Quick-paced and absorbing . . . chilling, understated and brilliant." -The Miami Herald "A fascinating little gem of darkness." -San Francisco Chronicle
The vivid imagination that allowed Martin to create Jekyll and Hyde's eponymous servant in Mary Reilly is again evident in this powerful story of a petulant and bitter plantation mistress whose absorption in her own misery leaves her blind to that of a slave she despises. Manon Gaudet is married to her husband before she could know whether the socially advantageous match would be a happy one, before discovering he is a cruel slave master with a propensity for debt and certainly before realizing that he will force Sarah, the light-skinned housekeeper who was a wedding gift from her aunt, to bear two of his illegitimate children. She learns all of these things soon after leaving her native New Orleans and arriving on her new husband's Louisiana sugar plantation, and is henceforth consumed by loathing for both her domestic predicament and the society in which it is possible. Manon's fierce discontent makes her an excellent narrator, as she has long abandoned any romantic notions about slavery and the plantation life. Her husband's arbitrary cruelty fills her with disgust for him, the "negroes" he abuses and herself. Her misery is grotesquely self-centered; she never evinces even a glimmer of sympathy for Sarah. Martin conveys this sickening blend of moral delusion and self-serving repugnance in feverish prose that perfectly reflects Manon's desperation. The racial unrest of the 1820s reaches this unhappy trio in the form of a small gang of escaped slaves who, in an unforgettably hellish scene, wound Manon, murder her husband and allow Sarah to escape. Manon's subsequent determination to have Sarah caught and returned is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this story, an emphatic reminder that the inhumanity of slave ownership knew no bounds. Yet in depicting Manon's plight as wife and widow, Martin also demonstrates compassion for white women in the patriarchal society of the antebellum South. In addressing these issues, Martin adds resonance to a compelling story. (Feb.) Forecast: Strong reviews should greet this intensely dramatic novel, which seems a natural for a TV book club selection. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.