Conjure Women is a tale of slavery and its aftermath – The Economist

Afia Atakoras debut novel evokes a haunting period in American history

May 7th 2020

Conjure Women. By Afia Atakora. Random House; 416 pages; $27. Fourth Estate; 14.99.

RUE KNEW she was a liar. When she was enslaved, and then during her first years of freedom, she often said, falsely, I know. As a child, she only pretended to understand why her mothers love felt so fierce and unforgiving. Years later, as her plantations resident healer, she was not sure why so many babies fell ill, or why women felt certain pains in childbirth, but she assured people otherwise. Rue saw that healing demanded faith and that she had to seem confident to get others to believe in her power. Her magic ought to be absoluteor it wasnt magic at all.

Conjure Women, Afia Atakoras atmospheric debut novel, is largely Rues story. Born into slavery in Americas South, she tends to the plantations pregnant and sick in the years after the civil war. Her mother, May Belle, made her name and living crafting curses for fellow slaves. Hoodoo, May Belle would say, is black folks currency. From her, Rue learned to heal, but she is wary of witchcraftand troubled by a shameful secret. When an illness claims the lives of local children, grieving parents accuse her of devilry. Meanwhile, Bruh Abel, a handsome itinerant minister with a too-wide grin on his face, arrives peddling salvation to a community too nervous about reprisals to feel truly free.

The book opens in the 1860s (Freedomtime), when Rue is around 20, but it skips back and forth before and after the war. By juxtaposing the brutality of slavery with the uncertainty of freedom, Ms Atakora captures the disorientation of the era. After Rues first whipping, her father reassures her that her cuts will harden sos the next time and the next time they beat you it wont hurt quite so bad. A few years later, he will be lynched by a white mob, his dangling toes making circles in the dirt as his body spun on the rope. Naturally, Rue and her fellow former slaves remain wary of breaking the white mans nonsense rules. She had never seen that thing the Yankees were promisingfreedomand she did not trust in what she could not see.

Ms Atakora poetically evokes the anxious, cloistered life of newly emancipated slaves. She notes the aroma the earth made when it sighed, and the stale air in the bedroom of the masters daughter, which smelled of rosehip and burning hair and sweat. Repetitious as it sometimes feels, her novel is a vivid portrait of a time in American history that remains both haunting and unresolved.

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "A kind of freedom"

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Conjure Women is a tale of slavery and its aftermath - The Economist

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