When the invite for this Blog Tour popped up in my Inbox I was intrigued and thrilled in equal measure. Promises of writing that evoked Toni Morrison were more than enough to get me interested, and what a pleasure it has turned out to be.
Conjure Women by Afia Atakora is a debut novel published by 4th Estate Books on 16th April. This book is already drawing some pretty heady comparisons, including the work of Sara Collins (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) and Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing).
And in my humble opinion it is entirely worthy of all the praise being heaped upon it. Quite simply it is remarkable . And for a debut novel it is exceptional, both in content and style. Thanks go to Lindsay Terrell for my gifted copy.
This is the story of Miss Rue. Rue is a black woman, healer and midwife to the recently freed black community on an American plantation. Rue has followed her mother Miss May Belle in taking on this role.
But her mother’s shoes are proving hard to fill and times have changed since the Civil War brought the nominal freedom of the plantation’s slave community. Rue continues her mother’s work but finds the community’s loyalty and unquestioning respect is no longer the same.
As the novel begins Rue attends the birth of a child; a pale skinned, black eyed and strangely watchful boy who is quickly known as Bean. Bean’s birth seems to herald unsettled times for the community as a strange sickness moves unchecked through it’s people. First affecting the young and then the old, it strikes fear amongst people’s hearts.
As the villagers look for someone to blame they look upon the strange untouched child and a perceived kinship between Bean and Rue, the woman who delivered him.
When Bruh Abel, a celebrated but transient preacher visits the village, suspicion against Rue and her practises increases and she begins to be further cut off from the people who have looked to her to sustain them for years. Talk of the strange spirit or ‘haint’ that roams the woods magnifies their fear and ultimately their distrust of Rue and her ‘hoodoo’ ways.
But can Bruh Abel provide the answers everyone is desperately searching for ? Or are there more similarities between Bruh Abel and Rue than it would appear at first glance? And by attempting to destroy Rue does the community risk it’s own safety in a way it can not comprehend?
For Rue, like her Mother before her is more that the healer of the sick, guardian of the dead and experienced midwife. She is also the keeper of secrets. Secrets that are woven into the fabric of the past, present and future, and whose exposure would jeopardise the community’s very existence.
This novel is a story that spans two distinct time frames. The ‘past’ refers to the time immediately preceding the American Civil War, up to it’s conclusion, ending with the freeing of the plantation slaves and the burning of the big house. The ‘present’ is a new time, of both nurtured hope and long held fear, of white men roaming the woods, unaccustomed freedom and loose ends that need to be explained away.
In the past, in the time of Rue’s girlhood,the figure of Varina, the white daughter of the plantation, owner looms large. She and Rue are of an age. On some level playmates but never to be equals, their destinies are tied together in a way that only Miss May Bell could foresee.
The two girl’s individual losses and trials run parallel to each other, two sides of the same coin, reflected in the unusual doll stitched by Miss May Bell. Over a period of years, the rise and fall of their fortunes seem to mirror one another, in an uncanny and almost predestined way. Change is coming, but change is hard for all involved.
There is a tangible sense of the complex history of the time; the feeling that changes brought about by the end of slavery open a gateway to a new era. And each step along this new path is fraught with fear and only achieved through the presence of hope. The ties to the past are strong, not easily shrugged off in this new world where rules are still being written and the past still lingers in the air.
There is natural pacing to the narrative, it is a story of individual lives woven together; tragic at times but with glimpses of light and colour providing balance. It is a story told with pathos, in lyrical, flowing prose. There is a tangible and authentic ‘voice’, a real sense of a story being told, a history being passed on to those that need to know.
This is ultimately a story of women. Of their bodies, their lives, their hopes, dreams and sorrows. It is a chronicle of motherhood, it’s complexities, sacrifices and joys.The characters that populate the pages of this novel are strong, flawed but genuine.
Everything adds up to make this a beautiful, reflective novel. Afia Atakora has created something that is, quite simply, stunning. Take some time to immerse yourself in the world of Miss Rue. You won’t regret it.
And there is more…
I guarantee I won’t be the only person to fall under the spell of Conjure Women. For more reviews and reactions check out the rest of the blog tour …