Desire and Dread


by Valerie Martin
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 196 pp., $23.95

Deep in the dark xenophobic soul of humankind there would seem to be a special terror of miscegenation: the “mixing”—“mongrelization”—of races. Where one race imagines itself as purer, closer to divinity than others, the terror may involve extreme acts of violence, even genocide. It seems self-evident that cultural, social, religious taboos are simply traditional ways of assigning a questionable objective value to primitive drives. For most of us, taboos lie too deep for introspection, let alone exorcism. We can analyze the biological underpinnings of taboos regarding incest, for instance, but we would probably not wish to attempt to violate them.

Valerie Martin’s eighth novel, Property, begins with the cryptic and prescient remark: “It never ends.” As in a film, we cut immediately to a cinematic scene, viewed through a spyglass by a narrator whose identity and sex we don’t yet know; she will turn out to be the embittered, frustrated young wife, Manon, observing her husband acting out a crude, cruel sex game involving several young Negro boys who are his “property”—he’s a slaveholder, a sugar planter in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, 1828. It is typical of Martin’s technique in this tightly constructed, suspenseful monologue-novel to present actions visually, before explaining them; we find ourselves in Manon’s abject position, forced to observe, unable to intercede. The sex scenario is humiliating to watch:

That’s what the game is for. This boy tries to stay in the water, he hangs his head as he comes out, thinking every thought he can to make the tumescence subside. This is what proves they are brutes, [the white man, Gaudet] says, and have not the power of reason.

The scene makes of the reader a helpless voyeur of Manon’s voyeurist experience of her husband’s voyeurism, which quickly becomes violent, sadistic as he beats the Negro boys for their “raised members”:

Sometimes the offending boy cries out or runs away, but he’s no match for the grown man with his stick. The servant’s tumescence subsides as quickly as the master’s rises, and the latter will last until he gets to the [slave] quarter. If he can find the boy’s mother, and she’s pretty, she will pay dearly for rearing an unnatural child….

Often, as I look through the glass, I hear in my head an incredulous refrain: This is my husband, this is my husband.

Where there is taboo, there is continuous fascination. Where there is dread, there is desire. Property is a deftly sustained meditation upon such paradoxes, given a deeper resonance by its setting and by the unusual perspective of its narrator, a privileged white woman in the slaveholding South who is herself “property” of her husband, nearly as powerless as the slaves who serve her. Near the novel’s end, after one of these slaves has fled the household in disguise as a white man, enjoying some months of freedom before she’s caught, Manon observes that the Negro woman has tasted a freedom she and other white women will never…

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