Bold, bloody Gothic tale of race and prejudice



By Sara Collins

Viking/Hardcover/373 pages/ $26.54/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

"No one like me has ever written a novel in the history of the world," says Frannie Langton - slave, servant, secretary and, most recently, alleged murderess - in Jamaican author Sara Collins' heady, furious debut that puts a black woman front and centre in a Gothic tale.

In 1826 London, Frannie is on trial for the murders of George Benham, an eminent natural philosopher, and his wife. Did she do it? She will tell her lawyer eventually - but first, she wants him to hear her story.

Frannie was born a slave on a plantation called Paradise - the naming of which, she remarks, tells you plenty about its owner John Langton, who would play God in experimenting on his slaves.

After he discovers Frannie reading Voltaire's Candide - and responds by forcing her to tear out the pages and eat them - Langton decides to educate her and make her his assistant in his macabre experiments.

Frannie herself is an experiment in how race might impact intellect, as she learns when the plantation burns down and a destitute Langton takes her to London so he can present her as a gift to Benham, a former patron.

As a servant in Benham's household, her wit and educated manners make her a popular spectacle at the Benhams' gatherings.

But it is Marguerite Benham, her master's alluring, troubled wife, whom she is drawn to. A mutual fascination between the two women grows into a tempestuous affair.

Collins crafts a claustrophobic narrative in which women circle each other in the tight spaces men keep them trammelled in. It is a maddening brew, laced with laudanum and replete with repression.

She is a dab hand with metaphors, scattering them like little surprises throughout the text. Marguerite has "neck-bones like the handles on a dresser"; misery is "certain as a wound clock".

Frannie is a seething, complex creation, a black woman who does not care to know her place. "I wanted to be a lady's maid," observes her fellow servant Prudence, a white Englishwoman, "but she wanted to be the lady."

Complicating notions of victimhood, Frannie holds in contempt the well-intentioned abolitionists who would add her story to their agenda: "All those good-doers, sniffing at the carcass of slavery, craving always to hear the worst thing. The worst thing isn't that it strips the world to scraps and forces you to fight for them; the worst thing is that one of those scraps is yourself."

The men are by and large flatly odious, with the exception of Olaudah Cambridge, a black youth who was a favourite of Marguerite's until he grew old enough for his presence to be a threat.

Frannie's relationship with Olaudah, now a boxer called Laddie Lightning, is an intriguing one.

They are pushed together with the expectation of kinship - only they understand the performative nature of their existence as entertainment for wealthy white folks - but more unusually, they prove not kindred but rivals.

Collins issues her own challenge to the canon of English literature, taking a beloved genre and digging through its innards to unveil its ugly underpinnings. Like her heroine, she carves her own place in an unwelcoming space - bold, bloody, blazing.

If you like this, read: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail, 2018, $21.29, Books Kinokuniya). An 11-year-old slave on a Barbados plantation becomes the assistant to his master's eccentric inventor brother, with whom he ends up fleeing on an airship.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2019, with the headline 'Bold, bloody Gothic tale of race and prejudice'. Print Edition | Subscribe