Tuesday 12 June 2018

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

A big thank you to the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction for shortlisting Sugar Money by Jane Harris otherwise I may never have stumbled across this gem of a story. Based on real events in Grenada in 1765, we follow young Lucien and his older brother Emile as they attempt to convince the hospital slaves to runaway, on behalf of the French priests of Martinique who used to own them when the French were in control of Grenada.

It's a story that shows up Anglo-European greed, manipulation and disregard for human life.

A few horrific, disgusting acts of violence were described by the slaves that almost defy belief. They were hard to read. I can't imagine how they were borne by the people they were inflicted on. Except that the scars inflicted during this time still linger on today. How it is even possible for one human being to think up these atrocious acts of torture let alone commit them against another human being is one of those things I have struggled with all my life? Man's inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds, whether it's in concentration camps, gulags, refugee camps, the slave trade or the modern-day human traffickiing problem. We've moved on from that time, but not that far.

Fortunately, Sugar Money is also a story about family, loyalty and courage.

The bond between the two brothers is complicated by the usual jealousies and age differences. Lucien's voice (that narrates the story in the patios of the time) is funny and vibrant. The story reads like a boys own adventure story (thanks to Lucien's attitude) with lots of action and tension to keep the pages turning. It's a period and place that I know very little about, so I was on tenterhooks the whole time, fearing what might happen next and suspecting that a story about slavery was never going to end happily ever after.

Issues around white appropriation of a black story are bound to be raised when a slave narrative is written by a young white woman - is this just a softer version of the greed, manipulation and disregard that allowed slavery to occur in the first place? I can't quite subscribe to this idea, but I appreciate the concerns. Yes, I'm another white person discussing this issue, but I learnt a lot about the horrors of the slave trade via this novel. Stuff I may never have learnt otherwise.

It is this particular curly issue that has caused me to delay this reader response for so long. In the end, though, I believe that any book or story that allows the reader to walk in another's shoes or bear witness to human tragedy is a powerful tool towards understanding and empathy, whatever the race, religion or gender of the author. Not every single survivor can bear to talk about their suffering, and nor should we expect them to relive their trauma for our edification. Add ancestral guilt (or pride) to the mix and we could talk around and around this topic until the cows come home.

Harris' story has got under my skin. I was horrified and fascinated in equal measure. She brought the cast of secondary characters vividly to life, as well as the lush landscape of the Caribbean, but it was the wonderful voice of Lucien that gives this book the sparkle and magic that will make it live in my memory for a long time to come.

3/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
15℃ in Sydney & over 33 ml of rain
19℃ in Northern Ireland


  1. You wrote: "Issues around white appropriation of a black story are bound to be raised when a slave narrative is written by a young white woman - is this just a softer version of the greed, manipulation and disregard that allowed slavery to occur in the first place?"

    Good point. A more pressing issue to me is the quality of research that the author achieved. Is this a story that too glibly fulfills modern readers' expectations and prejudices (or well-meaning pre-judgements)? Does the author really have evidence for whatever thoughts and feelings are attributed to the characters? Are details portrayed accurately, for example the minutiae of everyday life? These are the things I would like to know before reading a historical novel, and are the ones that are often messed up.

    best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    1. I did try to find out more about this before writing my post Mae, but there was so much differing opinion, that I couldn't work it out.
      The Guardian's lead line said, 'slavery obscured by a rollicking adventure' & they thought the tone was too light for such a sombre topic. Whereas I found the light tone made the ending even more harrowing. The lightness came from Lucien's voice - a typical teen full of bravado, self-importance and that sense of thinking they know everything there is to know about everything!

      The Irish Times said, 'vivid depiction of Caribbean slavery' & 'Like their beloved fictional cousin the unreliable narrator, the inadequate narrator of a novel draws the reader into a tale by forcing them to take an active role in the plot.

      The reader must themselves deduce what the narrator can’t understand.'
      Harris uses this literary device well - the reader inserts what they already know about slavery into the gaps of Lucien's narrative.

      The Spectator went with the lead, ' A tall and true tale from Grenada' & 'Harris read Beverley Steele’s Grenada: A History of its People and first came across the story of an enslaved man charged by his masters to steal fellow slaves from their enemy. The historical original embarked on his mission without an accomplice but, having worked on two previous novels with ‘solitary protagonists’, Harris has said she wanted to place close relationships at the centre of this book. One of the most moving aspects of the novel is the relationship between the siblings.'

      The Sydney Morning Herald said it was an, 'uneasy slavery novel about slavery' & finished by asking (but not answering) 'does the historical truth suffer from being appropriated and bent out of shape in the service of fiction?'

      The Huffington Post 'With a richness of historical detail, wry wit, and subtle characterization reminiscent of Hilary Mantel, Harris bridges the distance of centuries, to the slave plantations of eighteenth century Grenada.'

      I'm glad I had basically written my post before I went looking for these, otherwise I may never have written anything at all! Authenticity doesn't seem to be in doubt, but lots of (white?) reviewers have debated the cultural appropriation aspect. And I was certainly impressed by the quality of the research, but spent ages trying to find out which bits were real and which bits fictional. Jane Harris' author site (link in post above) had the most detailed info on this in the end.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful review which someone shared on Twitter, which is how I found it. Feel free to ask me any questions you like. Jane Harris.

    1. Thank you for your kind offer Jane.
      I've thoroughly enjoyed our email correspondence and learnt much about how this book came to be. I'm glad that your time at the Grenada Museum with the curator and meeting the locals helped you to feel confident in taking on this little known story and bringing it to a wider audience.
      Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions.


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