I took this one home from the library and read it in two evenings. It received quite a bit of a pre-release publicity but then seemed to sink without a trace. It is clearly intended as a kind of mix of The Help and Gone With The Wind but despite grand intentions, the story flounders in the rather flat writing. This is doubly unfortunate because the actual points of the plot were compelling and I felt that with a more able writer, this had the potential to be a fascinating read. I was also slightly nonplussed about the title – much was made in the publicity of the fact that one of the main characters was given as a wedding gift to another but then within the plot itself, this had very little significance. It was simply that the girl who was the other girl’s slave continued to be so after the wedding. It was a compelling read which kept me hooked until the end but more than anything it felt like a lost opportunity – a good idea poorly realised.
The story is narrated in alternating sections by Sarah, a young slave on the Allen plantation, and then also Theodora, the master’s wife. Sarah’s mother Emmeline has been forced to be Mr Allen’s mistress from long before his marriage to Theodora and Sarah was born only three months before Clarissa, Mr and Mrs Allen’s legitimate daughter. As Clarissa’s unacknowledged half-sister, Sarah grows up playing with her, hearing stories with her – and learning to be her maid. Mrs Allen is a highly educated young woman who once dreamed of living independently before being coaxed into marriage with Cornelius Allen; being a wife is the only career path open to her. She tries to do her best with the slaves, to plead their case where appropriate to the master and to find contentment wherever possible through her daughter Clarissa.
This is the author’s debut novel, her career otherwise has been as a lawyer and this shows. The story is itself based on a divorce case where a man sued his wife for teaching his slaves to read, and the marriage was then dissolved. Mrs Allen dares to teach Sarah alongside Clarissa, locking the door and swearing both little girls to secrecy. From early childhood, Sarah longs for freedom, although whenever she speaks the words, her mother berates her for careless talk. More worryingly, Bodden allows herself to get needlessly bogged down in points of legalistic detail – something which no doubt stood her in good stead as a lawyer but something which is decidedly less attractive as a novelist. The codicils and addendums to wills are dissected, evidence required for divorce is analysed and what should feel like a story of high emotion instead falls very flat.
That is not to say that there are not moments of horror. When Sarah’s other sister, Belle, is sold as punishment for their mother’s obstinacy, the account of what befell her was truly upsetting. Still later, the graphic description of a slave woman going through an amateur abortion made me feel quite dizzy. We can sense that the author cares passionately about this time period and is desperately keen to speak for them, to tell their story – but she lacks the creative gift to do so with conviction. One character bounces back after the death of her daughter after only a few days. The slave characters, and Emmeline in particular, seem listless and lacking in any energy to make them sympathetic. And all the time, Bodden tells, tells, tells and is never able to show anything about her characters. The ‘twist’ on the final page feels like a discordant note, a last-minute addition which made me shrug rather than want to turn back over the pages to check what I had missed.
The Wedding Gift is based on a situation appalling beyond words – Emmeline was happily married to her daughter Belle’s father when Mr Allen sold him so that he could have Emmeline to himself. Then he took a wife, Theodora, and forced Emmeline to have his baby. Belle was sold to be raped. Sarah was ordered to sleep with her half-sister’s husband. But Bodden is not able to make us feel this – she tells us repeatedly that her characters are sad, or are angry, but she tells her story through flat and unconvincing dialogue and it feels sluggish and forced. I thought of Toni Morrison’s Beloved – in that novel, the mother had killed her child to stop her being taken back to slavery. At one point other slaves discussed some of the more diabolical acts they had been forced to by their masters. I still remember that passage with exact clarity – it was short, it took up very little of the novel but in just a few paragraphs, Morrison achieved what Bodden did not. The resolution here feels unconvincing and the characters feel like cardboard – these are stories that need to be told, but not like this.
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Published by St. Martin's Press on September 24th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General
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