The pale-skinned, black-eyed baby is a bad omen. That’s one thing the people on the old plantation are sure of. The other is that Miss Rue – midwife, healer, crafter of curses – will know what to do.
But for once Rue doesn’t know. Times have changed since her mother Miss May Belle held the power to influence the life and death of her fellow slaves. Freedom has come. The master’s Big House lies in ruins. But this new world brings new dangers, and Rue’s old magic may be no match for them.
When sickness sweeps across her tight-knit community, Rue finds herself the focus of suspicion. What secrets does she keep amidst the charred remains of the Big House? Which spells has she conjured to threaten their children? And why is she so wary of the charismatic preacher man who promises to save them all?
Rue understands fear. It has shaped her life and her mother’s before her. And now she knows she must face her fears – and her ghosts – to find a new way forward for herself and her people.
I was so pleased when I recently got an email from a rep over at 4th Estate Books asking me if I’d like to participate in the blog tour for this novel and receive a beautiful hardback edition, I jumped at the opportunity as I’d been wanting to read this book already. It was like divine intervention folks, so of course I said yes and here we are. Big thank you to them for sending me a copy, but rest assured my review will be totally honest and unbiased as always.
Trigger warnings: physical violence, rape
Conjure Women is a stunningly written and tightly focused story following two women; May Belle and her daughter Rue, as they navigate the dangers of their lives and their role as conjure women during the civil war and post war abolition. I can’t believe this is Afia Atakora’s debut novel as it’s so skilful and deft in so many places and makes it even more impressive. This is a story which leaves such a deep and lasting impression, akin to Toni Morrison’s Beloved in it’s use of magical realism and elements from folklore as well as it’s exploration of motherhood and trauma.
The novel is split into two distinct perspectives and time frames, Miss May Belle narrates the wartime portions of the novel and Rue narrates the parts post war and abolition. Not only do the two women have very distinct voices and characters which made their arcs interesting but I also enjoyed the very different paths their lives take as they take on the mantle of conjure women for their community. While her mother has a deep affinity with the community and was trusted and loved by all, Rue is a much more introverted and aloof character, which makes it easier for her to come under suspicion when strange events start occurring. I think Atakora also reflects how superstition and folklore had such a large influence at this point in history and how easy it was for individuals to turn on each other due to fear.
Beginning with the inauspicious birth of Bean, a child whose cries awake the entire plantation and has haunting dark eyes. Rue feels a connection to this strange child, that their fates are entwined somehow and reading how this all plays out was quite something.
This ties in with one of the key themes of the novel for me, which was the relationships between mothers and their children. These relationships are complex at the best of times and I feel like this rings true and it works to such great effect in this novel. In particular it was powerful how Rue’s mother tries to make Rue realise that despite her affection for the masters daughter, Varina, whom Rue has grown up with – their position is precarious. Rue is innocent as a child, unaware of the power her white friend has and how one action or word could result in far reaching and terrible consequences. While her mother chooses the tough love approach, and is downright harsh at times, it’s clear that this is out of fear and concern for her daughter. It’s sad that Rue’s innocence has to be shattered in this way but it was real and it happened and these stories need to continue to be told.
I also thought the use of magical realism and elements from folklore enhanced the novel so much more. In particular there are foxes which appear throughout the story, and you don’t quite know whether they’re benevolent or malicious figures but after doing a quick search and an answer by the writer about their role here – Atakora explained that ‘they’re a common antagonist in African American folk stories & trickster tales’ and that their presence links to May Belle and her ‘tenuous control over the foxes and over her own fate as a slave’. I also thought Bean himself, the baby who is the catalyst for many of the events in the novel, has something of the supernatural about him, again very reminiscent of Beloved.
Overall, Conjure Women is a nuanced and well written novel which is affecting and haunting and paints such a vivid portrait of the realities of life for the Black community pre and post civil war and how these stories and voices reverberate throughout history.
Until next time,