Monday, May 18, 2020

Conjure Women - Afia Atakora

Summary: 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.
  (Summary and pic from

My Review: Here’s the deal—I’m a sucker for a good women’s story. I love reading about the lives of women, especially if they are completely different from myself. Every time I read something like Conjure Women I feel like my mind has been opened slightly more, like there’s a little part of the history of women’s tapestry of time that has been filled in a little more. I think it’s a safe bet to say that although there are a lot of women whose situation I relate to, African American slave women before, during, and after the Civil War are among not them. This is not, of course, my first foray into reading about this (not even close, in fact, I just reviewed The Water Dancer that you can check out here), but this book did a great job of immersing the reader into the world of these women.

I think the strongest thing about this book is the atmosphere that Atakora creates. The surroundings and situations are almost palpable. Let me explain. Lots of books can describe what the environment is like—you see houses, forests, people, etc. Whatever may be around. That’s one level of atmosphere. You can see in your mind’s eye. What it looks like. Atakora takes it to another level in Conjure Women. The book is more than just the houses, forests, streams, and people. The atmosphere becomes a character and is so strong that when you open the book and start reading, you can feel it around you. You can understand what it feels like to be there—who you see, your relation to them (as told through the eyes of the women whose story it is), the houses, the masters, the strangers coming through, the preacher, etc. The setting is so limited geography-wise for these women (most of the people have never even left the plantation) that the area itself has literally become full of memories. People, accidents, happiness, love, betrayal, and the onward march of life and death has created an atmosphere that in itself is a tangible character, and one that is ever present in the lives of these women. I loved it. That kind of depth is hard to achieve.

This book has a rotating point of view, and it was nice and organized, just like I like. It was broken into different sections of time (Slaverytime, Wartime, Surrender, and Freedomtime) and each of those times featured a different woman at the forefront. Miss May Belle and Rue are the mother and daughter whose stories this book revolves around. Their relationship was interesting and nuanced, as are all mother-daughter relationships. This is further enriched and complicated by the aforementioned setting as a character, which has become so deep and so rich that Miss May Belle and Rue have to deal with it in their own way. As they have lived in the same place for so long, they also have to deal with many of the characters in their own ways, each having had a different relationship with them. It is also interesting to meet the different characters in relation to the different women and their own personal relationship with them. There are lots of deep and interesting female characters in this book, and learning their different motivations and relationships added to the story as a whole.

This book is a great example of an author creating a story that naturally presents with many different moral quandaries for the reader to face. Were the decisions made the right ones? Under the same circumstances, would the reader make the same choices? This book does a good job of presenting situations that are eye-opening and yet relatable. As a historical novel, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was beautifully written and executed. As a story of women, I thought it was excellent. Women have been faced with so many different situations over time, many of them varying daily (as is the case in this book with a slave and her owner, whose own whims can change the tides).

If you are into women’s literature, especially historical women’s literature, I think you would enjoy this book.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a little bit of language and some light sexual content. There is also some violence as is, unfortunately, expected in a book about slavery.

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