A mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing—and for the conjuring of curses—are at the heart of this dazzling first novel
Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother's footsteps as a midwife; and their master's daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.
Magnificently written, brilliantly researched, richly imagined, Conjure Women moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue, Varina, and May Belle, their passions and friendships, and the lengths they will go to save themselves and those they love.
My first five star book of the year and a first novel to boot. Many years back I read a book, The Healing, that made a huge impression and a book I have never forgotten. This is another book that I would place in that class, another never to be forgotten story.
With nary a misstep in plot, tone or character develop, Atakora takes us to a slave holding plantation in the South. The book covers the period before the Civil War and after. What makes this book so special is that I didn't feel like an observer but was drawn into the story, feeling as if I were a part of what was going to happen.
The story follows a slave conjuring woman and her daughter Rue, which is also my granddaughters name) and the last mistress of the house Verita. After the war, the slaves stay on at the plantation, now ownerless, and their lives take many twists and turns. Their lives during slavery was often beyond terrible and after, the freedom they have still enactes a high cost. So many things happen in this book, the details, descriptions are incredible, all serve to make this a compulsive read.. Definitely will go on my favorites shelf, and it will take a strong contender to displace this for my favorite of the year.
The ending, though surprising, was just about perfect.
Healing, haints and Hoodoo, slavery, secrets, love and legacies. In this amazing debut, Afia Atakora took me to this plantation, somewhere in the South with a narratives of the time before the Civil War “Slaverytime” and just after, “Freedomtime”. Most of the novel is in alternating chapters focusing on Miss May Belle, a healer, a midwife, a conjurer of curses and in the years after the war, on her daughter, Rue as she reluctantly, but necessarily takes on her mother’s work. It’s not easy to read and why should it be ? It’s about the awful injustice of slavery. While Atakora doesn’t continuously dwell on the atrocities, these horrific deeds, there are occurrences of the inhumane treatment - a lynching, a man ordered by his “marse” to whip the woman he loves.
While the things that happen during “Slaverytime “ are certainly horrific, life in the aftermath of the War is not easy, but reflects the complexity of what freedom meant to the former slaves, left without a “marse”, with decisions to make, with secrets to be kept or not. The unfolding story of these secrets as the character’s truths are divulged kept me more than captivated wanting to know Rue’s fate.
In an interview (thanks to my friend Libby for the link to the Library Journal article), Atakora says: “ Stories of slavery in America should be told and told and told. We haven’t learned enough from our history, we need to look deeply in the mirror. “ We need to learn. The story became all the more meaningful when I read in her note at the end of the book that she “drew largely” from Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves Texas Narratives, Part 1. The relevance of this story right this very minute in our country should and does give the reader pause to reflect on the continued systematic racism and think about how to move forward.
I received a copy of this book from Random House through NetGalley.
I almost didn’t read this book. I was ‘sure’ it wasn’t for me. Why? 1.Just a feeling; 2.a low review from a reader I admire; 3.the book cover disturbed me.
I made Paul, my husband, have a conversation with me about the book cover. He said: “It did exactly what it was suppose to do; it got a fierce reaction out of you”. I still can get chills from the cover alone....
My turn came up from the library — I didn’t expect to make it pass a test run. Still on my high horse righteousness. I WAS WRONG! I couldn’t pull away.
It’s outstanding historical fiction-storytelling....with memorable characters. It’s the whole package: Births, deaths, mother-daughter relationships, ( both share a talent for healing), slavery atrocities, violence, abuse, racial injustice, beating, lynchings, rape, intensity, hierarchy, mystery, haunting fears, ( trusted ‘and’ feared in the black community), African-American history, dialect, life on the plantation, duel timelines - before - during- and after the civil war, coming-of-age, healing-herbs-magic spells, superstitions.....rich descriptions, great narrative .....and POWERFUL WOMEN!
...May Belle, is the community midwife, healer and conjure. ...Rue, May Belle’s daughter, wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She has more talent for birthing- than casting spells as her mother did...making her a little more vulnerable. She takes over the duty of ‘conjure women’ when May Belle dies. ...Varina is the daughter, and only child, of Marse Charles (the plantation owner). Varina and Rue are the same age....but Varina has the upper hand - simply because of who she is and being white. A pregnancy gone wrong....( cursed?)....and the first thing Varina does is suspect Rue of her casting a voodoo spell on her.
This book really is a gem - I didn’t think it was going to be for me —-but I was so swept away with all the stories - characters and history. ( travels from 1854 - to 1929).
There was one scene in the book I found puzzling ( gripping interesting but puzzling). A naked dead man was found in the woods.I never really understood the purpose and connection to everything else....but I went with the flow anyway.
I’m flabbergasted, that this is a ‘first’ novel. Afia Atakora has been hiding. Like the amazing opera singer whose first stage performance blows people away with their ‘a star is born’ performance.... That’s what Atakora has done with this masterful-storytelling novel.... ‘a star author is born’.
Powerful visuals, compelling and complex scenarios throughout.
I finished this book yesterday, but I wanted to wait a day before I left a review. I wanted to see if I would continue to think about this book and/or let the book stew and simmer in my mind before I articulated my thoughts about this debut novel, Conjure Women, from Afia Atakora. I am still uncertain about what to say about this book. To be honest, it was not a remarkable read for me. Given the title, I was first intrigued because I figured this book had to do with some “magic”, vodun, healing, and conjuring. However, the more I read, the less and less it was about what I thought of as conjuring, but more of a complex host of situations that was happening in this non-sequential history of slavery before, during, and after the Civil War.
Conjure Women, follows the life of “Miss Rue,” who is the daughter of a conjurer. Miss May Belle, her mama, has learned the art of hoodooing, and there is where “Miss Rue” has learned her lessons of conjuring. A skittish and ‘stay out the way’ child, Miss Rue grows up with the lessons of conjuring from her mama, and we learn how Miss Rue grows up and comes of age within the boundaries of slavery and how she lives a life post-slavery. This book was both anti-climatic but engaging at the same time, and I was keen on seeing this novel all the way through. I may have the unpopular opinion about this novel, as I really didn’t like the way the story unfolded. The points of views changed constantly, the voice changed (back and forth from 2nd to 3rd), and the story dragged on endlessly. I thought this book had to do with the generations of conjure women in Rue’s family, but it more so dealt how Rue handled life, the consequences of slavery pre and post Civil War, and how she used conjuring to protect her ideas of life, liberty, and happiness. I also believe that Rue was institutionalized regarding slavery. She was free (post-Civil War), but saw freedom as useless, and didn’t want to leave her plantation. “Freedom seemed to them to be as useless as the currency of a nation that didn’t exist anymore.”
There was so much going on in this book to deal with… white women lying on black men. Black men being punished/killed for white lies. Black people trying to take control of the little they had by “protecting it,” through conjuring. Dealing with freedom. Learning how to deal with the devastation/plunder of black bodies under slavery. Passing for white. Being enslaved. Secrets. I mean the list can go on and on.
To be honest, I was very confused and disenchanted by this book about half way through, but I wanted to continue to get to the end to find out what was going to happen to Rue, Bean, Varina, Ma Doe, Miss May Belle, Bruh Abel, Jonah, and Sarah. Some backstories were not elaborated on, and left out some facts that I felt were pertinent to the story. Overall, was it a worthy read? Yes. I think this book will invoke some good discussions, especially around the institution of slavery and freedom, protecting what’s yours by any means necessary, and what white people’s entitlement means for black lives. For me though, I would rate this book a 3. I just wasn't that impressed with the overall package this book brought, and I was hoping for more that just didn't come to fruition.
Thank you to Net Galley, Afia Atakora and Random House for providing me with an ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
A powerful debut novel by this author. The story is about emancipated slaves continuing to live on the plantation they’ve lived on for many years, after its destruction during the Civil War. It centers most around a healer (conjure woman) Miss May Belle, her daughter Rue, and Varina.. the daughter of the white plantation owner. The story goes back and forth in time showing how they had to live pre and post civil war times. Miss May Belle was called upon for healing and the casting of spells and midwifery before the war.. following her death after the war, Rue takes over..when she delivers a baby with a caul.. and other children start getting ill, people start wondering if she is a witch. The slaves where now free but continuing to live on this ruined plantation.. they didn’t really know anything of the outside world, freedom hadn’t yet changed their lives.
Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for this ARC!
I’m conjuring up this review. This was a riveting story that takes place in the mid 1800’s on a plantation, taken from the perspective of a slave daughter whose mom is the medicine healer, and now she is expected to follow in those footsteps. Secrets that keep these women bound and the suspicions the people have of this hoodoo magic.
The story moves back and forth from Rue, the daughter and to the mother, May Belle, and to the white master’s daughter. Truth and lies twisted from one fold into another. A little slow moving but paced much quicker in the 2nd half. Disturbing and haunting and loyalties that bind. 4.5 ⭐️
CONJURE WOMEN is like if John Steinbeck sat down and wrote about the Black experience during the Civil War. It's just as epic in scope and the author, Afia Atakora, does a really good job showing people at their best and at their worst in the microcosm of plantation life. I was so impressed by the depth and complexity of all the characters, especially the two main characters, Rue and May Belle, who are the healing women on the plantation and sometimes due hideously cruel things when their own selfishness and desperation to survive overrides their mission to do no harm.
The novel is told in pieces. The wartime parts are narrated by May Belle, a respected woman on the plantation who delivers the babies and does all the healing. Her position is thrown into flux, though, as her daughter slowly comes of age and with her, the daughter of the plantation, Varina. Brought up in relative shelter from the crueler machinations of the plantation, Rue has grown up blind to what white people are capable of. That blind eye has some glaring repercussions for Rue and her mother.
The second piece of the novel is narrated after the war. Rue has now taken over her mother's duties, but she lacks her mother's warmth and her people regard her with suspicion and fear, especially when a mysterious plague starts to afflict the children, causing them to sicken and die. Rue's foothold of power and respect is then thrown into question when a preacher named Abel comes and his biblical variety of salvation proves more imminently consumable and palatable than her own.
I loved this book so much. In addition to the Steinbeck comparison for its simple but elegant brutality of the written word, I would say that this book also reminded me a lot of Octavia Butler's KINDRED. It's one of the more nuanced books of the Civil War-era South I have ever read. There are some scenes towards the end that are very hard to read, including torture and rape, but it's never too graphic, isn't lingered on, and is crucial to the story.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
"As a slave woman [Miss May Belle] made her name...by crafting curse...Hoodoo...is black folks currency...a white man would come from afar having heard of Miss May Belle's conjure, asking for cure of some affliction set upon him...by slave...by his own white wife." May Belle and her daughter Rue lived in a cabin they shared alone "a privilege to be sure". Miss May Belle birthed every baby at Marse Charles [her master's] plantation. Marse asked if May Belle was teaching her daughter Rue "her knowledge"...[It] keeps my child in his ownership and I make her worth the owning."
Rue learned the art of healing within the time frame of the Civil War. At this time, Rue was often "off mischiefing" with Miss Varnia, the red-headed daughter of the plantation owner. May Belle was soon to give up midwifery and healing. She "...stopped wanting to touch mamas or their baby joy"...after her man was hanged. Rue routinely delivered babies and tended the sick.
Slavery had ended. "Freedom had come after the war for all black folks. All excepting Rue,...for she was born to healing and stuck to it for life...a secret curse of her own making...just as easy as folks praise came, it could turn to hating...magic and faith were fickle...". Bean was "a seemingly accursed baby" delivered by Rue ..."a devil...she made...in the woods from river water, from clay...a haint and blight against the townspeople...distrust heaped upon him, as soon as he blinked open his bean-black eyes...".
"Conjure Women", a debut novel by Afia Atakora, describes the life of Rue, born into slavery, taught the art of healing and birthing by her mother, May Belle. Schooled in the old ways in times of slavery, during the Civil War, Rue was ill prepared for post-war freedom. "...Freedom was a word with weights. It meant deciding to stay or to go". Author Atakora masterfully paints a picture of Varnia, the Southern belle, Black-eyed Bean, and travelling preacher Bruh Abel as well. I highly recommend this work of historical fiction.
Thank you Random House Publishing Group-Random House and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review "Conjure Women".
A gripping debut that follows the lives of three women through the years as the Civil Wars looms, as well as the years that follow the war, and the people in this community. Shared through the thoughts and days of Miss May Belle, a conjure woman; her daughter, Rue, who is still a child as this story begins, but who will grow to learn her mother’s skills in both casting spells and delivering babies; and Varina, daughter of Marse Charles, the plantation owner, and who through their childhood, Rue believes to be her friend. Add to these Bruh Abel, a magnetic preacher who seems to have his own agenda, and a community who turns to Miss May Belle for healing and birthing, but who turns against her when they feel a need to blame someone.
The author did her homework, reading narratives by those who were enslaved during this time period, the stories gathered by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s. It touches on the horrors of both slavery and the years of post-war “freedom,” when there were rapes, lynchings and assorted other acts of terror on those whose skin colour was not white.
Still, this doesn’t dwell in those horrors, but shares a brief view into the hearts and minds of both sides in this place and these times. At the same time, it is primarily through a chosen few that Atakora shares this moving story of conjuring and the belief in miracles.
Pub Date: 07 April 2020
Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House Publishing Group / Random House
4.5 stars - Afia Atakora is a new voice who writes with all the seasoning of a mature novelist. ‘Conjure Women’ blends vivid imagery with lush prose and in depth characterizations. In a world as complex as the topsy-turvy doll that graces the book cover, nothing is ever simply black and white. Atakora explores gender roles, the roles of slaves and their masters and mistresses, childbirth and death, and none of it is ever simple. She examines the nuances and the ways that lives are blended, melting into one another, and as she does, Atakora divines the miracles of perception and of how history shapes who we are, who we become. So brilliantly does she fling the threads of her story into the past and the future, that I could only breathe in the pages and sit in awe.
Rue is following in her slave mother, May Belle’s footsteps. May Belle was well known for her hoodooing. Rue learns which herbs to use for what and even more than that, she observes her mother’s relationships in the community. The intricacies of those relationships, of physical and emotional needs, of the power of a curse, of hope and loss, of love and despair are things Rue learns from May Belle. By becoming invisible, she can learn a lot. Rue knows how old she is because the master’s daughter, Varina, was born the same year. Red-haired Varina and Rue often play together in the evenings. Varina is not allowed outside in the daytime due to her fair skin coloring. Like an expert and colorful weaver, Atakora casts backward into the past during slavery time, then forward into freedom time, weaving her unique tapestry of words.
The story begins during freedom time when Rue is around twenty years old, delivering Sarah’s baby. Sarah was a house girl, who although young, already has two children. This child is different. He doesn’t look like Jonah, his daddy. He’s very light-skinned and he has strange dark eyes. Rue calls him Black-Eyed Bean, and even though his mother names him Jordan, Bean is the name that sticks. Bean is born in an intact amniotic sac, and while Rue has seen other babies “wearing the veil,” she’s never seen one swimming inside red-black water. She feels this is an ominous sign, even though babies wearing the caul are said to “have the sight.” The mother is also shocked by her baby’s appearance, for his skin is strangely dry, “near scaled.” This baby will have a profound influence on Rue. As he grows, children and adults are not accepting of his strange appearance and often different behavior. They begin to look askance at Rue, blaming her for the strange child that she delivered.
A most fascinating character in this narrative is Bruh Abel, a traveling preacher, born of a black mother and a white father. He becomes a powerful figure in Rue’s community with the ability to either elevate a person or dash their reputation. Bruh Abel is a much different person than what I at first expected and I enjoyed being surprised by his character arc. There are some gripping revelations as Atakora spins her tale. Lies and deceptions will coil and spring. Whatever it takes to survive, this is paramount. An exceptional debut novel that begs to be read and reread. In a conversation with Penguin Random House, https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detai...
Afia Atakora says,
“The end of the war and slavery was hopeful for some and a horror for others, a tumultuous time that must have been something like the times we find ourselves in now where everything has been turned all over and we’re waiting to see what settles, who we are going to be."
May Belle and Rue are conjure women and they work as healers in the 19th century American South. That's the one line sentence summary of this book. But it's also a book about the weight of history and the roles we play. May Belle & Rue exist in the pre and post Civil War era, allowing us to see the roots and the aftermath of trauma. It's a novel about the power of Black women (which has folk/quasi magical elements) and the other power white women wield (which is it's own kind of power and maybe even magic). The easy comp book is Toni Morrison (with Beloved). But some of the language reminded me of Dorothy West. Good stuff if you like historical fiction and shifting POVs (some people hate shifting POVs, *shrug*). Difficult to classify, which is always fun, at least for me.
Last night I started CONJURE WOMEN by Afia Atakora and it is amazing, an absolutely astonishing first novel. Drop everything. Get on the phone or your computer and BUY THIS BOOK. It's deeply researched and beautifully written. I read nonstop for three hours and only put the book down because I felt utterly suspended by the story and her prose and needed to process.
I enjoyed this story for its Civil War-era (and reconstruction) setting, and its emphasis on mother-daughter relationships. And I confess to being swept away the first 80 or so pages by transporting prose and imagery:
The black baby’s crying wormed and bloomed. It woke Rue by halves from her sleep so that through the first few strains of the sound she could not be sure when or where she was, but soon the feeble cry strengthened, like a desperate knocking at her front door, and she came all the way awake, and knew that she was needed, again.
To Rue her mama was always a mystery; in all things great and small, she showed her magic as mamas do, with their knowing.
This novel presents the horrors of slavery, and yet, also, the moments of ‘freedom’ for some of the characters. This was really a 3.5 for me, because I found the pacing uneven (in all fairness, this reaction could honestly be nothing more than my wandering, Covid-world, lack-of-focus mind). I had also hoped for more connection between Rue and Varina and just didn’t ‘feel’ it. I rounded up for the fascinating herbal healing history, and the historic insight.
Atakora’s debut novel draws heavily from primary sources: first person accounts, diaries, autobiographies recounted through amanuenses of Black Americans for the period during the Civil War and the years immediately afterward. The setting is a plantation owned/once owned by Charles. But this is really a story about three important women who lived there: Miss May Belle who helped fellow enslaved women with childbirth and more; Rue, her daughter, that followed in her footsteps; and Varina, the daughter of Charles and close friend of Rue.
The narrative flows back-and-forth between “Slaverytime” and “Freedomtime”. The POV of “Slaverytime” is Miss May Belle, and it is Rue’s POV that we hear in “Freedomtime”. One of the secondary characters is the charismatic black preacher Bruh Abel. Atakora appears to have included him to highlight the cultural swirl of Christianity, superstition, and folk practices in the Black people’s lives of the period.
The plot tends to meander through this period that Atakora describes as “strangely bittersweet, psychologically fraught”. She states that “the first draft was written at a fever dream pace in about nine months….I resolved to keep the writing style to a similarly hazy quality, as much to capture that first inspiration as to emulate the telling and retelling of oral history common throughout the African Diaspora.” That helps to explain a lot and why I thought some of the plot-line was a bit of a mess at times.
This is a historical fiction with some magical realism. I have tried to read this book several times, but I could not get into it. In the end I DNF this book after trying to reading it and trying the audiobook. I won an arc of this book from a goodreads giveaway, but this review is 100% my honest opinion. (*)
I struggled to the 58% point of this book and then gave up reading and skipped to the end. The writing style was bland (not helped at all by the narrator of the audiobook) and I didn’t believe, or understand the purpose of, the Varina story. Maybe I have maxed out on fictionalized slave stories. If you are going to keep poking at a wound you should at least get the satisfaction of having some pain there. I was not moved by anything in this book. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
You don’t have to like every book about the horrors of slavery. You don’t have to like every book about the suffering of Blacks. This is true, even if you absolutely abhor both slavery and the injustice that has been directed toward Blacks over the ages.
The book follows a black slave mother and her daughter before, during and after the Civil War. Both come to be midwives. Both are knowledgeable in the art of herbs—their beneficial as well as their harmful properties. They know how to save people’s lives, how to lessen suffering and how to bring about death. Some might classify this as magic. They might by some be called witches. The author does also show that what might be considered magic can also be given feasible, reasonable explanations.
I want to make one thing very, very clear. The horrors of slavery and the cruelties inflicted upon slaves is the central focus of this book. Events in the story are based on documented interviews carried out during the 1930s. The story itself may be fictional, but similar events have occurred. However, if you have read other books, fiction and or non-fiction, none of the events or circumstances drawn will surprise you. What is delivered here has been written of umpteen times before.
So, should you pick it up anyhow because the prose style is good? NO! Well, not if you ask me. I find the writing purple, overdone, exaggerated. What characters say and what they mean is mot always clear. Too often dialogues leave the reader confused. The writing is written in such a way as to increase suspense rather than give clarity.
Events are not told in chronological order—continually we hop back and forth in time. I didn’t like this at all. The reader is told little bits. An event is returned to several times, each time with a teen bit more information added. This makes the writing disjointed and repetitive. What could have been said quickly is drawn out forever and ever. Suspense, created in this way, I find immensely annoying. Nor do I like the cinematic tone of the novel.
One might think that such overblown prose would enhance one’s empathy for the characters. No, not here! Too much of one’s thinking must be spent unwinding the convoluted plotline that zigzags back and forth in time.
So, the material presented is old hat, the writing is exaggerated and longwinded and finally, I never came to feel for the characters. This explains why I have given the book one star.
Adenrele Ojo narrates the audiobook. The words are not hard to hear, but I dislike the singsong melody of her voice. Nope, I dislike the narration, so this I have given one star too.
Conjure Women, Afia Atakora’s exquisite debut novel, is one of the most anticipated reads of 2020, and I must say that it didn't disappoint. Set before, during and after the American Civil War the story follows the intertwining lives of three multigenerational women working on a plantation in the Deep South. May Belle is a self-proclaimed healer, midwife and known as the local ’conjure’ woman who the community turns to help with many problems. Rue is her daughter and also a healer and wishes to follow in her beloved mother's footsteps but she isn't entirely convinced she possesses the same ’gifts’ as her mother. Varina is the daughter of the proprietor of the plantation, Marse Charles. We see the difference in the way the women are treated due to the colour of their skin and it makes for sobering but important reading. It discusses the impact of slavery and the struggle to build a life after emancipation takes place.
This is very much a character-driven novel and from the first few pages, the writing pulls you in as the poetic prose is difficult to resist. It slips seamlessly between different time periods and the slow burn nature of the story allows the author ample time to develop the cast of characters and each has a personality of their own. All three main characters are strong interesting women and are vividly portrayed. What is absolutely clear is that Atakora has extensively researched the topic of enslavement in modern America and infuses this fictional novel with the very real trials and tribulations of black slaves. This is a sad, melancholy but all too necessary and important book and it quickly becomes compulsive and mesmerising. Beautifully imagined, rich and brilliant, this is a story that will stay with me long after its completion. Many thanks to Fourth Estate for an ARC.
Conjure Women was such a beautiful story, richly devoted to well written characters in dual timelines based in the South before and after the Civil War. I loved the complexity in the strong women that are in the book. They each had their own struggles of their time, and I admired them each.
*thank you randomhouse for the gifted copy. All opinions are my own
Conjure Women, a debut novel of historical fiction, is set on a plantation in the American South ‘in slaverytime, wartime, in freedomtime.’ The two main characters are Miss May Belle and her daughter Rue.
Marse Charles has tasked May Belle with keeping his slaves healthy with her knowledge of herbs and midwifery. But her fellow slaves often come to her for a little hoodoo. She passes on her knowledge as best she can to her daughter, but Rue’s stock in trade leans towards lies and secrets, which she justifies by thinking ‘every wrong she’d ever done, she’d done to protect others.’
After the war, the former slaves build themselves a little village from what remains of the slave cabins. When their children begin to sicken and die, they lose faith in Rue and welcome a smooth-tongued preacher who comes into this midst. Can he drive the devil out?
The story moves back and forth across the timelines, slowly revealing how events unfolded. The characters are richly drawn; the plot complex.
The only white character we come to know is the Marse’s daughter, Miss Varina. She is perhaps more stereotypical than the other characters, being the usual spoiled rotten and pampered prima donna. But she and Rue form an unlikely friendship, symbolized by the turnabout doll Miss May Belle makes for Varina (beautifully depicted on the cover of this book): turned one way, it’s Varina; turned over, it’s Rue, forever intertwined.
I received an arc of this debut novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. i apologize for not getting it done in a more timely fashion but many thanks for the opportunity. This author will be one to watch in the future.
I really wanted to like this book. When I first heard about it, it sounded so intriguing. I immediately placed it on my Goodreads list. April couldn’t come fast enough!
I dove right in, as soon as I got a copy. It started off well enough. Then at around 33%, I began to lose interest. The characters were bland and soulless. They just didn’t resonate with me. Nothing about their stories made me care for them.
By 45/50% I began skimming. I just wanted it over with. Why didn’t I put this on the DNF pile? FOMO? I don’t really know. But I skimmed my way thru the second half. And even when these characters began experiencing their varying traumas, I didn’t care. It almost seemed contrived. Like, ‘Lemme throw some trauma in there for good measure.’ I said in the review right before this one: trauma does not equal drama! Le sigh.
The premise of the mother/daughter being ‘conjure women’ was what drew me. But that plot line was muddied in so much else. Ugh. I was very confused with Varina’s importance. Or her importance to Rue’s story. I think I was closest to May Belle. I would have enjoyed more of her voice. Rue bored me, almost irritatingly so. Being Abel, Jonah, Sarah...meh. Again, Le sigh.
This just wasn’t for me. I think I’m going to shy away from any more slave narratives, a favorite genre. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing has probably spoiled me for a long time.
Conjure Women follows two generations of women healers - May Belle and her daughter Rue during and shortly after the Civil War. As a conjure woman May Belle is revered on the plantation. She holds power among the slaves and wields a healthy dose of fear with the slaveholders.
By the time Rue assumes the mantle of healing, the Civil War has passed. Although most of the whites have gone, the slaves live in relative obscurity with the outside world ignorant of their existence. Not knowing the full extent of their freedom or the danger that lurks just beyond the borders of the plantation, they continue to subsist off the land. When a strange sickness hits the plantation, fear runs rampant. Instead of being glorified for her healing powers Rue is shunned and accused of being a witch. The community's hope is now put in a charismatic young preacher called Bruh Abel. In their religious fervor anyone who is different is scapegoated, demonized and separated from the flock.
Conjure Women is a magical debut that vividly captures this time period. A compulsive read, it emphasizes the importance of community, the resilience of women and knowing your power.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Random House Publishing and Afia Atakora for access to this book.
"Miss May Belle had used to turn coin on hoodooing. As a slave woman she'd made her name and her money by crafting curses. More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies"..."Hoodoo...is black folks' currency."
These words set the tone for a novel I found a mixed read, but a mostly satisfying one. Alternating time lines allow for hints and slow reveals of life as a slave and as "free" people; of events that spin circumstances, and motivations that dictate which fork in the roads are taken and why. The author captures well the superstitions, routines, and hardships of life in this community where everyone knows everyone, and where rumors can ruin lives more effectively than a plague that sweeps through. A community trying to find a way to understand what happens and believe in those around them.
"Truth was Rue had a share in their suspicions. She had shied away from Bean as they all had. Worse, she'd taken his wrongness as an omen against her and her past sins."
The author weaves a complicated tale amongst a small group of memorable characters, threads of connection only partially visible as the unique prose casts a spell on the content.
"But there was no sure way to be rid of shame, no conjure to be rid of guilt. Even if the bundle never rose again it still flooded around Rue, the shame did. It rose in the mind, in her dreams and then in her waking, and in the face of every slowly sickening child she could not save."
In this story we know where we are, but not how we got there. By alternating timelines and dispensing factoids with carefully timed precision, we are taken on an interesting journey, with enough tension to sustain interest along the way. I think my lack of a fifth star is due to a few times my interest was lagging (perhaps due to turns in the story that were less interesting to me), and that I've read enough novels with themes of slavery that it has begun to feel stale. I started to give this three stars, but upon reflection, felt it deserved one more for some of the creative plot lines and the prose, which was very immersive and not easily done.
“… she showed her magic as mamas do, with their knowing.”
The mother daughter relationship is always a subject rich with possibilities. Add to that what life was like for enslaved people in the time before, during and after the Civil War. Add to that a mother and daughter who practice the healing arts. And what you have is a marvelous, layered, and uniquely fascinating story.
The comparisons of this author with Toni Morrison are valid--truly! This is shockingly Atakora’s debut novel, but she writes like an old soul. Her characters are complex and surprising. And what I found the most exciting was her prose style. It’s vivid and smooth and illuminating. Here’s one of my favorite descriptive passages as an example.
“The mismatching collection of benches and stools and house chairs dragged outside made the square in the quarter look like a parlor room had bloomed from the center of the earth. The corn they worked was piled high, a proud mountain of bounty. Above, the sun was dipping down in the sky, shining in last rays on them sweetly, and Marse Charles had seen fit to give them a few jugs of whiskey, which they were allowed to pass amongst themselves as long as their hands didn’t stop moving longer than it took to sip. The world had gone all golden, and their tongues were loosed.”
Parts of the plot confused me. There are threads going every which way: from past to present, from one character to another, from black folks to white folks, from the powerful to the powerless, from decision to destiny, from religion to magic. It leaves you with much to ponder over.
But I loved this story. I love this writer. I think she has a long, successful career in front of her, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
“… any devil can be fled from, can be survived no matter how pervasive. You beautiful as an angel, girl. You just sprout wings of faith and fly.”
Conjure Women is a richly structured novel, moving between the last years of southern slavery and the risky freedom that followed. Multiple stories play out in alteration, informing each other, as well as functioning on their own. Because I kept wanting the next part of this two-sided puzzle, I found Conjure Women a very difficult book to put down.
Conjure Women does nothing to "whitewash" either slavery or the dangerous years after it, but it also doesn't indulge in gratuitous violence. There is cruelty, both across and within races. There are also badly made choices, when characters, addressing pressing needs, create entirely news set of problems and injustices. Afia Atakora's insight into the complicated natures of human identity and desires gives us a world both blemished and carefully observed.
Given the wonderful quality of its plotting, characters, and prose, I feel compelled to call Conjure Women on of this years must-read novels. Don't miss it.
I received a free electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. The opinions are my own.
I can easily see this as being one of the best books of the year. A beautifully written story of Rue and her mother, May Belle, who are wise medicine women on a plantation in the south. This is set before, during, and after the Civil War and describes the complex relationships between the plantation owner, his daughter Varina and the slaves, and especially between Varina and Rue. Rue assumes her mother's place as the medicine woman and healer after her death. She is called into question and becomes an object of suspicion when a plague starts to take the children and which she is powerless to stop. A traveling preacher, Bruh Abel comes to lead the slaves with his prayers and baptism which end up enticing most away from Rue. The unthinkable cruelties of slavery are called out as the reader becomes part of this world. The dynamic between Rue and Varina flounders as the war comes to a close and the power in their relationship alternates, ultimately saving them both.
4.5 stars I had the opportunity to meet the author of this book through a Zoom meeting sponsored by my local library. It was fantastic. This is a powerful debut novel. It is beautifully written and throughly researched. It is the story of slavery and emancipation. We learn through alternating chapters the lives of three main characters, who remained to live on the plantation for many years during the Civil War.
May Bell is a healer and midwife and has magical qualities. She works on the plantation and keeps the salves healthy through her secret herbs and potions. She teaches her skills to her daughter Rue. Varina is Marse Charles, the plantation owners daughter. We learn of their relationships during “slavery and freedom” especially between Varina and Rue. Many secrets and mysteries unfold in this novel.
This is a must read for Historical Fiction lovers.