Posted in Book Reviews

Sugar Money by Jane Harris Review

Jane Harris’s new novel is a gripping tale of colonial cruelty and slavery

Sugar Money is narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sugar Money is narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

FOR her third novel, Jane Harris takes an obscure true story and turns it into a gripping tale of colonial cruelty set in the Western Antilles in the late 18th century. Enthrallingly narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave, the story begins in Martinique and travels to Grenada where the British have instituted a particularly brutal regime for the enslaved. Harris has said she that visited Grenada during her research and the evidence of this is abundantly plain in the sense of place and time she evokes.

Lucien and his older brother, Emile, live on Martinique, slaves of les Frères de la Charité, a French religious order running a hospital on the island. In order to keep the hospital afloat, the Fathers have indigo and sugar cane plantations, tended by their slaves. By the standards of the age, the Fathers are not particularly harsh towards their charges, but the slaves live in primitive conditions and have no say in their fate. They can be bought, sold, or rented out in order to generate more money for the hospital.

In 1742, the Fathers had been drafted in by the French Colonial Government to run a hospital in Fort Royal, in neighbouring Grenada. When the superior Father died, the government took over the running of the hospital once again and sent the Fathers back to Martinique, but made them leave their slaves behind. In 1763, the British invaded Grenada and took over the hospital and the slaves, subjecting them to a vicious regime with ferociously harsh punishments for the slightest infraction.

Father Cléophas wants the slaves brought to Martinique, and decides that Emile and Lucien should go to Grenada covertly and persuade the slaves to escape from their British masters. For Lucien, it seems like a grand adventure but the more experienced Emile realises how much danger they are placing themselves in. Father Cléophas knows that Emile is desperate to see Céleste, the woman he loves, and despite his misgivings, Emile will do his best to bring Céleste to the relative safety of Martinique.

The relationship between the brothers forms the heart of Harris’s story and even as they bicker, the bond between them remains strong. When the illiterate Emile struggles to read a parchment that Father Cléophas has given him, Lucien empathises. “A pang seized my heart as I watched him squint at that page.” Lucien often feels that Emile is trying to side-line him and claim any glory for himself when, in fact, Emile is trying to protect his young brother. Lucien’s childish need to prove himself a man leads to trouble for both, but he remains likeable and sympathetic throughout.

Language plays an important role in the story. Lucien is sent on the secret mission because he speaks some English which may prove useful if the brothers are stopped by British soldiers. The French refer to the British as “the Goddams”, and their slaves speak a mixture of pidgin French, English and Kréyòl, forming a colourful patois. There is a pleasing rhythm to the slaves’ vivid and descriptive dialogue. France becomes “Fwance”, “kickeraboo”means dead, and “Chyen pa ka fè chat” means “dogs don’t make cats”. “Mwen ni bel poisons!” shout the vendors at the St Pierre harbour market where Lucien has often tried to buy fish or other goods, “paying in sugar, tomorrow self”.

Harris does not shy away from the horrendous conditions slaves are forced to endure, and the punishments meted out. Lucien, barely in his teens, already has a “back ridged with an island of scars, a map of tyranny,” thanks to Pillon, the violent man who fathered him. On Grenada, the brothers see a slave standing naked all day in the sun and trying not to let his ear, which is nailed to a wall, rip open. The callous inventiveness of the Goddams’ punishments is horrifying. Filling a slave’s mouth with human excrement and sealing it shut for several hours is one of their more disgusting methods. Although the Goddams are often referred to as English, there are Scots running plantations and overseeing the slaves. It is subtle, but Harris demonstrates that Scots were deeply involved in slavery.

This is a novel that celebrates the incredible capacity of humans to pursue lives filled with love and courage in the face of overwhelming cruelty. Harris’s novel may be set some 250 years ago, but it has a key relevance to the modern slavery that still blights our world.

Sugar Money by Jane Harris is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99

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Posted in Book Reviews

Dark Times by Ethyl Smith – Review

Ethyl Smith’s Dark Times continues the engaging story of courageous Covenanter John Steel

The sequel to Changed Times is set after the Battle of Bothwell Brig

The sequel to Changed Times is set after the Battle of Bothwell Brig

DARK Times, the sequel to Ethyl Smith’s lively debut Changed Times, follows the fortunes of rebel John Steel after the Battle of Bothwell Brig, where the Covenanters were roundly defeated by government troops. The war between King Charles II, who wanted to impose a new liturgy throughout his kingdoms, and the Presbyterian Covenanters who resisted, is a bloody period in Scottish history.

The tale opens in the summer of 1679, with many of the beaten Covenanters taking to the heather and hills to avoid imprisonment, or worse. John Steel, who humiliated the Earl of Airlie by knocking him off his horse during the battle, finds himself a particular target of the vicious Earl’s vengeance. Steel uses his intimate knowledge of the landscape around Lesmahagow to avoid being captured but that angers the Earl even more. Airlie turns Marion, John’s wife, and their two young sons out of their home and warns their neighbours that anyone offering the Steels succour will be subject to the same kind of harsh punishment. Airlie tells Marion: “Under fugitive law I claim this farm and land. Frae this meenit on ye’ve nae richt tae be here.” Pregnant and unable to call on friends or family, Marion and her children have to live rough on the moors. Smith pulls no punches in detailing the violence and cruelty perpetrated by both sides but without lingering over the bloodshed.

She sets the scene well, weaving in the day-to-day routine of 17th-century farm life, the hard work and hardships, to her tale. Town life is also vividly depicted, from the respectable businesses to the disreputable taverns, and busy market days at nearby Lanark. The sense of community is palpable, with family and friends helping each other out in difficult times, while petty squabbles between neighbours can grumble on for years. What really sets Smith’s novel apart, however, is her superb use of Scots dialogue. From the educated Scots of the gentry and nobility to the broader brogues of everyday folk, the dialogue sparkles and demands to be read out loud. Wonderfully chewy words and phrases abound, such as “high falootin ideas”, “fricht”, “richtfu”, and “thocht”. Even those with little knowledge of Scots can grasp Smith’s meanings from the context, and the eye and ear soon become accustomed to the resonant language.

John Steel is based on the historical figure who lived through the turbulent Covenanting years, and Smith effortlessly intersperses other leading figures of the time with her fictional characters. John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, was loyal to the Stuart kings and enforced the law of the land with such ruthlessness he was nick-named Bluidy Claver. He was one of the most celebrated soldiers of the age and in Smith’s hands he is clever, urbane and sly. Reverend Richard Cameron, a radical Covenanter preacher, was known as the Lion of the Covenant. He had been studying in Holland, where he was ordained, before secretly returning to Scotland. He drew up the infamous Sanquhar Declaration, which openly denounced King Charles II as a tyrant and sought to exclude his Roman Catholic brother, James, from the succession. Cameron had a high price on his head. Smith shows him as a man fanatically wedded to the Covenanter cause, growing more radical and carelessly confident as he travelled around Scotland preaching field sermons.

Smith expands her geographical canvas, taking the story outwith Lesmahagow and into the surrounding countryside with government troops scouring the land for rebels, and shows the deprivations that both sides experienced. Several characters travel as far as Glasgow, then a major port with ships coming and going to the continent. She depicts the city as a hive of activity, not all of it legal. Wealthy merchants rub shoulders with the poor and criminal classes in streets teeming with life.

Smith’s prose is deceptively simple and she builds real tension into her story, sticking to the facts while creating plausible fiction in the spaces in between. The characters are well defined and generate a range of emotions, from sympathy to horror. John Steel is the hero of her tale but he is no superman. He is clever and well-liked but he makes mistakes and has regrets, the main one being that his wife and children suffer for his rebellious streak. Originally the Times series was envisaged as a trilogy, but fans will be delighted to learn that Smith is working on another two instalments about the life of the courageous John Steel.

Dark Times by Ethyl Smith is published by Thunderpoint Publishing, priced £9.99

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