This excellent narrative is centred on Rue, one of the ‘conjure’ women of the title, who works as midwife and herbalist for the other enslaved people on a plantation in 19th century America. When Bean, a pale-skinned child with strangely dark eyes is born, Rue is horrified: ‘She felt then that she knew him for what he was, a secret retribution for a long-ago crime, the punishment she had been dreading.’. It is from this moment that the story begins to unfold.
In this wonderful debut novel, Afia Atakora has created strong women characters who live and breathe. Rue, her mother, Miss May Belle and a white woman, Varina, daughter of the owner of the plantation, are complex and conflicted and all linked in ways that are gradually revealed through the telling of the story. These are characters who will stay with you.
‘Conjure Women’ is a skillfully realised and rewarding read, set against the background of the Civil War and emancipation; and moving back and forward from ‘Slavery time’ to ‘Exodus’ to ‘Wartime’ Perhaps a little overlong and slow at times, it’s a very ambitious novel, particularly for a debut; and brings to life the harsh realities of living under terrible oppression and violence.
Afia Atakora could well be describing her own writing when she says: ‘The words blossomed black out of his pen like fast, elegant little miracles.’ This is writing of a very high calibre and I can’t wait to read more from this author.