Sugar Money, set in the midst of the slave trade, tells the story of two slave brothers, Lucien and Emile, who work on a plantation run by Friars in Martinique. The novel opens with the brothers being summoned to see their master, Father Cleophas, and ordered to embark on a mission to return to their homeland of Grenada and smuggle forty-two slaves back to Martinique, as the Friars believe the slaves to have been stolen by English invaders. Not only is this a dangerous mission in itself, but the brothers must work through their differences in temperament and experience, as well as their conflicting feelings about returning to their homeland. This is especially true for Emile who, forced to leave behind a lover when he was enslaved, must now face the truth of what happened to her.
As a tale based on the true story of slaves smuggling slaves in the 18th century, Sugar Money is a bold move for any writer, especially a white one, but Jane Harris is not a writer to shy away from unconventional narratives. Her first two novels were explorations of characters that are not usually paid much attention, and in Lucien she has created another intriguing misfit narrator. He is a captivating creation, at once a headstrong, energetic and flawed young man but also a sensitive one, who says of a cow at the very beginning of the book, ‘she had the fluffiest most velvety ears of any cow you ever did see and her milk always came plentiful and sweet’. The contrast with his broken, bitter brother Emile is one of the most striking aspects of the book and aside from the adventure element of the story, is one of the main sources of tension throughout the novel. This is both the novel’s strength and its weakness, as the exploration of sibling love and rivalry undermines the questioning of the nature of their mission. To her credit, Harris does not shy away from the violence and depravity of the slave trade, but in putting the brother’s relationship at the forefront of the narrative, there is not the requisite space or scope for readers to ask themselves about the historical legacy and the brutality of a system that forced slaves to capture and enslave others. This narrative choice prioritises questions related to whether the brothers will succeed above the complex and necessary moral questions that lie at the heart of their mission.
This is not to diminish Harris’ ability to tell this story, which needs to be told, over and over and over if we are ever to understand it. However, as we are yet to come to terms with this atrocious period of our history, it is not yet time for it to be used an historical backdrop to a more traditional adventure story, however well meaning, and well written, that story might be.
Sugar Money was published by Faber & Faber on 5th October 2017.