Afia Atakora’s debut novel “Conjure Women” opens with a sonorous unyielding cry from a bad omen: the piercing sound comes from a pale-skinned baby, born in a caul with unnaturally black eyes and a scaly birthmark.
Throughout the story
The child, named Bean, is at the center of the novel, but Rue, the woman that birthed him, is the main protagonist. Set on a fictional slave plantation-turned-town somewhere in the South, the story focuses on two women: Miss May Belle, an enslaved healer owned by Marse Charles, and her daughter Rue, who is meant to follow in her footsteps. The work moves back and forth through time, but most of the book takes place during twilight stage of slavery and subsequent dawn of the Reconstruction period.
As healers, midwives and hoodoo practitioners on the plantation, Miss May Belle and Rue constantly play with the threads of life and death, manipulating everyone around them, influencing the choices of their fellow slaves.
As the Civil War roars to a conclusion, Miss May Belle dies. The townspeople believe she placed a spell on the property. Some think of it as a protection charm, others as a curse.
“Miss May Belle cast her agony over the whole of Marse Charles’s burnt-down plantation, folks said, and over the wilderness just beyond. After the war came Surrender and in that time of flux, of fortune and misfortune, of raised white flags and dead white folks, Miss May Belle had believed, or so it was told, that the only way to keep their isolated plantation and the colored people in it free was to keep them chained up, to make for them a master out of the invisible white of the river fog.”
Cut off from the world, the community only manages to receive one visitor, a traveling preacher. While residents can leave, they are always drawn back. Residents “haven’t seen a white man in years.”
When she is orphaned, Rue takes her mother’s place as the healer. She works to fix what she can and distract from what she cannot. Upholding the matrilineal line of magic is harder than it seems.
Other than the curse, all is well in their newly formed town. Then “the ravaging” comes in the form of a fever. The community’s children sicken and die, the hopes of their parents’ wither and superstition takes hold as the group attempts to understand something that they cannot see.
When the traveling preacher conducts his seasonal visit, the clergyman and the conjure woman square off as the townspeople wonder who to put their trust in. “It smacked to her of that time before the war that she had thought was safely in their past. But here it was again, taking on another type of robbery: no Big House, but now a fair-skinned black man who’d set himself up above them on little more than his talent for telling tales down by the riverbank.” Both miracle workers understand that their powers run on the strength of belief.
Atakora’s ability to write a plot twist keeps the story from becoming predictable, and every time it seems Rue has found the cure for what ails her community, the situation shifts and another thread comes undone. When a white family intent on homesteading appears in the woods, the tenuous threads of safety net the conjure women had woven start to unravel, and Rue must decide which is worse, the illness or the remedy.
Every character is forced to analyze what emancipation means because they know there are things that keep them bound — Miss May Belle’s curse, the burden of their lies, the secrets they keep from one another, as well as alliances formed before the war that no longer serve their original purpose. Eventually the characters learn there is no conjure that can cure guilt, and the haints that hide in the woods and trouble the edges of their lives must be faced if the residents are ever to find true freedom.
Novels about slavery are often filled with gratuitous rape scenes and physical violence to illustrate the arbitrary cruelty of slavery. Atakora strays from that trope, using whippings and miscegenation when they are pivotal to the progression of the story, opting to saddle her cast of characters with emotionally frustrating choices that stem from the psychological trauma of enslavement. She demonstrates clear command of her characters, alternating viewpoints as they chronicle their struggles to survive and question whether they have the power to endure. All the while, the author weaves together elements of religion, hoodoo tradition, herbal folklore, and folktales. With an ear for conversational dialect like Zora Neale Hurston and a penchant for stirring up shadows, Atakora presents her townspeople as well-rounded characters leading complex lives, with well-developed self identities and relationships they hold precious.
If there is one major drawback to this novel, it is the unexpected, arguably unsatisfying coda. There is resolution, but all is not settled — and perhaps that was an intentional choice. As the United States continues to grapple with the Gordian knot of its history with slavery and the subsequent repercussions, the country’s story also does not have a comforting ending.
In the tradition of magical realists like Toni Morrison and reminiscent of Gloria Naylor’s “Mama Day” and Robert Antoni’s “Divina Trace,” “Conjure Women” is an intricate, intimate examination of the psychological toll of uncertainty, a stunning debut novel and an engaging, immersive read.
By Afia Atakora
Penguin Random House
416 pages, $27
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