Published: April 2020
Author: Afia Atakora
Published by: 4th Estate
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 416 pages
Reading dates: 15-23 September 2021
The pale-skinned, black-eyed baby is a bad omen. That’s one thing the people on the old plantation are sure of. The other is that Miss Rue – midwife, healer, crafter of curses – will know what to do.
But for once Rue doesn’t know. Times have changed since her mother Miss May Belle held the power to influence the life and death of her fellow slaves. Freedom has come. The master’s Big House lies in ruins. But this new world brings new dangers, and Rue’s old magic may be no match for them.
When sickness sweeps across her tight-knit community, Rue finds herself the focus of suspicion. What secrets does she keep amidst the charred remains of the Big House? Which spells has she conjured to threaten their children? And why is she so wary of the charismatic preacher man who promises to save them all?
Rue understands fear. It has shaped her life and her mother’s before her. And now she knows she must face her fears – and her ghosts – to find a new way forward for herself and her people.
Set in the Southern states of America both before and after the American Civil War, Conjure Women is told over two timelines in alternating chapters “Freedomtime – 1867” and “Slaverytime – 1854”.
Before the war, young Rue lives with her mother May Belle, who has a role of healer and midwife amongst the slaves but is also known for her ability to craft curses. The before chapters give us an idea what it was like for the slaves, their interaction with their white owners and horrific beatings that were dealt out.
The after chapters focus on Rue and how she has taken over from May Belle as the town healer. The community have managed to stay behind on the plantation after the war, hidden from the white folk but Rue knows they shouldn’t be there and could be discovered at any moment. As the book opens she has just assisted in the delivery of a baby – one who is pale skinned with black eyes, one that horrifies Rue herself with his appearance. He becomes known as Black-Eyed Bean and draws suspicion amongst the community, with his unusual appearance and strange cry.
As Bean gets older, he has a special bond with Rue and when a sickness spreads, killing many of the other children, suspicion falls on Rue as Black-Eyed Bean stays well while all the other children get sick.
I bought this book a few months ago – I hadn’t seen a lot of reviews but the cover caught my attention and I do enjoy historical fiction. I buddy read this with a couple of friends over on Instagram, and despite us all enjoying it, we all agreed for some reason it was taking us a long time to read – but not because it wasn’t engaging, I can’t really explain it!
I thoroughly enjoyed both timelines and several times I was left shocked by what I had read – the way slaves were treated is well documented but it still gave me shivers. The relationship between the plantation owners’ daughter and Rue was also interesting. Often playing together as friends, Rue still knew her place and was wary of how quickly things could change but as the book progressed we see the balance of power shifting. I also enjoyed reading about the healing treatments they used and the conjuring spells.
A fascinating, well-crafted and absorbing book, I thoroughly enjoyed Conjure Women and would recommend this if you’ve read and enjoyed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
About the author
Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.