CONJURE WOMEN is like if John Steinbeck sat down and wrote about the black experience during the Civil War. It's just as epic in scope and the author, Afia Atakora, does a really good job showing people at their best and at their worst in the microcosm of plantation life. I was so impressed by the depth and complexity of all the characters, especially the two main characters, Rue and May Belle, who are the healing women on the plantation and sometimes due hideously cruel things when their own selfishness and desperation to survive overrides their mission to do no harm.
The novel is told in pieces. The wartime parts are narrated by May Belle, a respected woman on the plantation who delivers the babies and does all the healing. Her position is thrown into flux, though, as her daughter slowly comes of age and with her, the daughter of the plantation, Varina. Brought up in relative shelter from the crueler machinations of the plantation, Rue has grown up blind to what white people are capable of. That blind eye has some glaring repercussions for Rue and her mother.
The second piece of the novel is narrated after the war. Rue has now taken over her mother's duties, but she lacks her mother's warmth and her people regard her with suspicion and fear, especially when a mysterious plague starts to afflict the children, causing them to sicken and die. Rue's foothold of power and respect is then thrown into question when a preacher named Abel comes and his biblical variety of salvation proves more imminently consumable and palatable than her own.
I loved this book so much. In addition to the Steinbeck comparison for its simple but elegant brutality of the written word, I would say that this book also reminded me a lot of Octavia Butler's KINDRED. It's one of the more nuanced books of the Civil War-era South I have ever read. There are some scenes towards the end that are very hard to read, including torture and rape, but it's never too graphic, isn't lingered on, and is crucial to the story.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars