Review: Conjure Women
Updated: Oct 17
Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora (2020)
An impressive debut of historical fiction, the book is set on a large plantation in the Deep South - before, during, and after the Civil War. The story jumps back and forth in time, showing life on the plantation, war time, and post-war, when the former slaves make a home for themselves out of the remains of the plantation's slave cabins. (Atakora did extensive research for the novel, including former slaves' first-person accounts of the time period surrounding the Civil War.)
We follow the lives of three women - May Belle, a slave woman who acts as healer to her fellow slaves, and has the gift of "conjuring"; Rue, her daughter, who reluctantly takes up the mantle of "conjure woman" even though she feels she lacks the "gift"; and Varina, the white daughter of the plantation owner. The main through-line is Rue, connected to everyone, but reclusive and emotionally inaccessible. When, during her time as conjure woman, a sickness hits and begins to kill off children, fear grips the people of the make-shift town, and they accuse Rue of being a witch. This fear is stoked by the appearance of a honey-tongued preacher, Bruh Abel, who promises salvation through conversion and baptism, and by the anxiety surrounding a little black-eyed boy with scaly skin, born to one of the former slaves.
I love a book with a non-linear timeline, but found this one to be a bit disjointed. Maybe this is because it's Atakora's first novel, but she also says, “the first draft was written at a fever dream pace in about nine months….I resolved to keep the writing style to a similarly hazy quality, as much to capture that first inspiration as to emulate the telling and retelling of oral history common throughout the African Diaspora.” So, this could explain some of that feeling. I appreciate the intentionality of it, even if it didn't 100% work for me.
I enjoyed the story nonetheless, and will be interested to see what she does next.
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