There 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.