Valerie Martin is a daring writer, one who likes to take chances in her work. In Property, Martin explores the inner and outer lives of a woman caught up in the perverse historical fact of slavery. Set on a Louisiana sugar plantation, Property tells the story of Manon Gaudet, childless wife to a rapacious slave owner and the mistress herself to a house-slave who has borne two children by Manon’s husband. The slave and her children are constant presences in Manon’s everyday life, and Martin quite deftly illuminates the troubling psychology of such a relationship. More than anything, perhaps, Martin illuminates the minds of these women, both of them caught up—in clearly different ways—in the historical trap that was the institution of slavery.
In particular, Martin unravels the uncertain personal history of Manon’s own family and its relationship to the slave experience. Manon, estranged from her husband and tolerating only barely his sexual license, takes repeated solace in the memories of her father, a man whom she remembers as one of the enlightened ones. As the novel unfolds, however, Manon discovers the reality underlying her memory, a reality that shakes her from a kind of moral indolence.
Her world is also shaken by a slave rebellion which brings violence suddenly and terrifyingly into her world. Manon’s husband is killed, and Manon herself is physically attacked; she is left wounded, damaged, and widowed. What follows is Martin’s imagining of the life of such a woman. On her own, without significant legal and economic privilege, Manon finds herself alarmingly alone in the world and unmoored. She also comes to understand the magnitude of her failure: her failure to understand Sarah, her house-slave (who attempts an escape, but is captured and returned), her failure to understand her father, who (like Manon’s husband) participated in the foulness of slavery, and her failure to understand her own complicity in the immense historical crime which was slavery.