As I was looking for a book that would fit The Reading Women Challenge 2020 prompt #1, an author from Caribbean or India, I remembered this novel that a few of the Caribbean-based bookstagrammers I follow (particularly Cindy at @bookofcinz) had talked about last year when it came out. It sounded pretty interesting and really not like anything I’d read before, so I decided it would be the one!
“No one knows the worst thing they’re capable of until they do it.”
This story, obviously, centers around Frannie Langton. Born a slave on the island of Jamaica, she is brought to England by her master after a fire on his estate (and his failing health) causes a drastic change in his Jamaican-based fortunes. Once there, despite the fact that the trade has been abolished on the continent, Frannie is “gifted” to a scientist friend of her master’s. In that household, she begins a complex relationship with her employers, George and Marguerite Benham. When we, as readers, meet Frannie, she is imprisoned and on trial for the Benham’s deaths. And although she claims she cannot remember anything from that night, she does have a story to tell, her own story: her experiences on that Jamaican plantation, immoral scientific practices, illicit relationships, and more.
There was a lot that happened in this novel, a lot, and it’s delivered in a really interesting way. Frannie’s narration of her own life, her “confessions,” if you will, is as flawed as you’d expect anyone’s to be, speaking from memory and with all one’s own internal biases. But in that way, it is also much more compelling that a third-person narration of this story would have been. Allowing Frannie to have her own voice in how the reader sees her makes her experiences feel more personal that I think they otherwise would have been. It also allows the author to use certain writing techniques to draw out the suspense and lack of clarity for many events, as Frannie struggles with the pain of remembering and her own, as she sees them, sins. I liked the style in a general sense, though there were definitely times with her internal musings and distractions were so much that they caused the plot to drag just a bit. In addition, some of the vagaries about Frannie’s “understandings” and “realizations” as plot points unfolded bordered on being so opaque as to not be follow-able. I reread a number of parts trying to figure out what pieces Frannie had connected that I had missed and, though I think by the end I had a reasonable handle on most of them, it was still not quite as clear as I’d wanted. I appreciate that we weren’t, proverbially, hit over the head with the twists/revelations, but still, I would have appreciated slightly more pointed-ness.
In any case, the sheer number of dramatic turns did, at the very least, keep me engaged in the story and wanting to keep turning pages. From the unethical (horrific and horrible) scientific experiments Frannie was forced to assist with in Jamaica and at Benham’s hands, to the general mistreatment her person and mind endured as a slave/maid/black woman, to the complexities of her relationship with Marguerite, and finally to her time in prison and under trial, Frannie’s life is one of great suffering on many levels. And it gives such remarkable insight into a time period and setting that I haven’t read much about (at the very least from this perspective). Slavery in the Caribbean is a topic that I’ve read much less on than slavery in the Americas. And I’m not sure I’ve ever really explored literature focusing on the post-slave-trade period of time in England, which technically would have meant Frannie was “free” when arriving in London, and yet the continued racial, gender and class-based inequities, mistreatments, judgements, etc. didn’t not allow for any truly meaningful change in her circumstances. Plus, there was a fantastic examination of the white abolitionist movement, the savior complex and trauma voyeurism that was rampant in the movement – an incredibly important and oft overlooked historical theme (I’m looking at you, high school history classes).
This novel, though it’s framed as an exploration of Frannie’s role in the murder of her employers, and there is every chance her own testimony will seal her fate on that front, its larger messages/themes present a searing indictment of all of English society at the time. Also, I had really no knowledge of the “scientific” work of the period that focused on “proving” whether or not black people were human or not. Many of the descriptions Frannie provides of these “studies,” though mostly vague (until a short section towards the end), ring similar to the Nazi experiments on concentration camp prisoners during WWII. I was completely unaware of this particular historical detail and it’s simply gruesome. I appreciate Collins for bringing it to light/attention to a wider public with this novel. As a side-note, the sort of random plot them of opium use (laudanum) for the time period, and the nascent study of its affects, was interesting from a medical and legal perspective for sure. It felt like a bit of a “hanger-on” as far as topics in this novel go, but still, interesting.
This was, as I had hoped, a novel unlike any I have read before. Some of the details are still a little fuzzy for me (plot-wise), which made it harder for me to connect with the story than I would have wanted. But Collins’ writing was polished, the gothic tone was perfect for the topic/time period, Frannie’s voice rang sincere (which is incredibly important for a novel written in this format), the study of Frannie’s own character, feelings and actions was complex and fully dimensional, and the historical context was well described and developed. Overall, I wanted a little more out of this book than I got, but regardless, I definitely appreciate my time with.