The future's not bright
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Date: 3 July, 2003


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'Martin's airy but sharp prose brings authenticity to the southern setting whilst maintaining a pace throughout the novel.'

Valerie Martin
Abacus 9.99
212 pp

"Property is theft," wrote the French political theorist Proudhon in 1840.

As an anarchist he was referring to the injustices caused by ownership and the resulting inequalities. If property is theft, it must be devastating to be the property of another human as the latest Orange Prize winner so beautifully and bleakly depicts.

Manon Gaudet is the wife of an owner of a sugar plantation and numerous slaves, in the Deep South just a decade or so before Proudhon's exhortation.

We follow her frustrations as she discovers the realities of being the property of her husband; no rights to her own inheritance for example. Simultaneously we are treated to Manon's antipathy towards her slave Sarah.

Although the main reason for the antagonism is not so much Sarah's position but the fact her two children have been fathered by Manon's husband it becomes increasingly clear that Manon is no abolitionist.

The revulsion that grows within Manon for her husband becomes increasingly tangible: "He drained the colour from every scene, the flavour from every bit of food, the warmth from every exchange of sentiment. He had not so much destroyed my life as emptied it."

Forcing us to question the attitude "that we should stay married no matter what" and to recognise concept of a marriage dying.

Despite the claims of some that the Orange Prize is for second-rate women writers, Property is exceptionally well written. Martin's airy but sharp prose brings authenticity to the southern setting whilst maintaining a pace throughout the novel.

However unlike the typical Booker Prize winner that tends to favour traditionally male writing (even if it is a woman author) which is more action orientated with a certain detachment between the reader and the protagonist, Martin enables the reader to almost embody Manon.

Such intimacy with Manon's thoughts, observations and frustrations, prevents the need for Martin to moralise as we become uncomfortably aware of the contradictions in her life. Such incongruities mirror the criticisms by black women of white feminists - as we have emancipated ourselves we have often ignored the degradation of our sisters of colour.

Beautiful writing that provokes and confronts us with our humanity cannot be ignored and the Orange Prize should be hailed for continually highlighting such talents.