Sugar Money by Jane Harris: Well worth the wait

Cover imageThere seems to be something of a trend in fiction at the moment, although perhaps three novels are too few to be called that. First came Colson Whitehead’s Man Booker shortlisted The Underground Railroad followed by Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and now Jane Harris’ Sugar Money, all exploring the history of slavery. I’ve yet to read the first two, leapfrogging over to Harris’ novel having waited eight years since the wonderful Gillespie and I. Based loosely on true events, Sugar Money tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands.

In December 1765, the war between France and Britain recently over, Father Cléophas has hatched a plan to rescue his friary’s finances, employing a mixed-race slave to help execute his scheme. Emile was once a slave on Grenada before he was sold on leaving his brother – more than ten years his junior – with the friars who took him to Martinique. Lucien is a cocky young twelve-year-old. Emile does everything he can to prevent his younger brother from accompanying him on what he thinks of as a foolish and dangerous mission but Lucien is determined to show he’s just as smart and brave as the brother he quietly idolises but constantly mocks. These two cross the sea, finding their way to the Fort Royal hospital where they are greeted by many that remember them including Emile’s beloved Céleste. Emile has three days to persuade the hospital slaves to return to Martinique. Some are eager, perhaps foolishly so imagining a paradise of ease and freedom, others are more circumspect, many are weak and infirm. On the third night, they set off, hoping their masters will be distracted by Christmas celebrations. What ensues is a fraught and arduous journey on which Lucien will finally become the man he thinks himself to be.

Harris structures her story as a lost slave narrative, written by Lucien and discovered on the death of his abolitionist employer. Lucien is an engaging and entertaining narrator, a bumptious sardonic smart Alec in counterpoint to his quietly resourceful brother whose intelligence and integrity have won him great respect. Harris’ writing is as striking as I remember it in both The Observations and Gillespie and I. Lucien reels off a string of colourful flourishes: Father Cléophas is as ‘slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel’; Emile is ‘a closed-up box within a box with locks; ‘say what you like about my brother but his eyes so sharp he could see two flea fornicating on a rat in the dark’. Harris uses her narrator’s voice to leaven her sober theme with a good deal of humour while laying bare the barbaric brutality of slavery fueled by greed and corruption. Ratcheting up the tension as the slaves make their way to the port, she had me racing through the final sections of her novel, hurtling towards the finishing line in the hopes that all would be well. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

26 thoughts on “Sugar Money by Jane Harris: Well worth the wait”

  1. Sounds like a tough yet necessary read. I have yet to jump into the The Underground Railroad’s wandagon, and if I ever did, I would prefer to star by Harris’ novel (partly thanks to you!).

    1. I think Harris made a wise choice to inject some humour into her narrative via Lucien. She never loses sight of the horrors of it all but it means the novel avoids becoming a slog through relentless misery.

    1. Excellent! Given that this one’s in hardback, I’d say The Observations although if you’re after a quintessentially unreliable narrator Gillespie and I might be a better choice. Not very helpful, I’m afraid, but I’m very fond of all of them.

  2. Not a writer I’ve ever encountered before, but those extracts suggest a fine turn of phrase added to an interesting subject matter and some sharply realised characters. Sounds like a writer that should be on my radar. Lovely review 🙂

  3. This sounds wonderful. I love Jane Harris and went out and bought this one as soon as it was published; alas haven’t had time to read it just yet but now I really can’t wait to do so having read your very positive review.

    1. I’m not a fan of child narrators but Harris nails it with Lucien. Capturing a voice is what she does best, I think. All three of her novels are brilliantly narrated. I hope you love it as much as I did.

  4. I loved both of her previous books, the first mostly for mood and pacing, the second for the structure and voice (but all of those elements seemed to play a role in my enjoyment, to varying degrees). I didn’t remember/notice that she has something new, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. Which of the three do you feel you read most quickly? I just remembering devouring the other two!

    1. She has a great line narrators. Both Bessy and Lucien are very funny, smart and sassy, while Harriet was wonderfully unreliable. Probably this one as far as speed is concerned, particularly towards the end when the fate of the slaves is in the balance. I’ve been delighted by how many readers have shared this post on social media – I’m taking that as an indication of how many Harris fans there are out there.

  5. I’ve read all 3 of the slavery themed books you mentioned and would recommend them all for different reasons. I enjoyed the ‘voice’ used in Sugar Money as Jane has really captured the tone of the local patois without overdoing it. I made a cruise stop in Grenada years ago so it was also enjoyable to relive the Caribbean atmosphere.

    1. She’s so good at capturing the voice of a narrator, isn’t she. Each of the three so far have been very different from the others but they’re all utterly convincing. Lovely to have a few travel memories triggered, too!

  6. I haven’t read The Underground Railroad yet, but as you may recall Homegoing was my outstanding read of 2017, not so much for the history of slavery, but for the impact on the DNA of subsequent generations, one of the two sisters whose lineage it follows, actually marries a slave master and so we see how her family evolves through time compared to her sister.

    I’ve been in two mins about reading this, it does sound like an excellent work of historical fiction, but it’s also set in a region whose women writers are some of my absolute favourites, Simone Schwartz Bart, Jamaica Kincaid, Maryse Condé and I feel a little the same as I did before reading Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, wondering how her upbringing in the Caribbean would reflect on her art and it certainly does, but not in the way that it does for those whose origins are deeply embedded there.

    What Sugar Money really reminds me of is Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, for in that novel she inhabits the voice of a young slave girl called Hetty and when asked about writing from the perspective of an enslaved character she quoted Alice Walker who said “She was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature” and it appears something similar happened to Jane Harris when she travelled to these parts.

    I think I shall just have to read it and find out for myself, it’s too tempting combining so many elements that have the potential for a great story. Thanks for an excellent review Susan.

    1. Thanks, Claire, and I do remember that you loved Homegoing. I’m not sure how you’ll feel about Sugar Money but I’ll be interested to find out. I’m not familar with the writers that you mention but I suspect that Harris’ work is very different. Harris’ forte lies in the voice she gives her narrators. Lucien begins as a sassy bumptious boy who thinks he’s a man but ends speaking in a very different tone.

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