Overall Rating: 5/5
If you have seen Conjure Women before, you perhaps imagined that this is a book about magic. Its beautiful cover art – filled with colorful flowers, mysterious figures, and complementary tones – is enough to entice one to concoct an entire fantasy before the first page is even opened… or at least it had that effect on me. In truth, this stunning debut novel from Afia Atakora is easily one of the best books I have read this year and while it was enchanting in many ways, it was so much more than magical. Set against the landscape of a plantation, this story entwines the deeply complex narratives of its many inhabitants, weaving together a rich tale filled with love, friendship, pain, and of course, magic.
The character and relationship development in this book is truly phenomenal. Perhaps it is because I am embarrassingly unversed on slave narratives (and working to address this everyday), but I was enthralled with Atakora’s ability to paint nuanced stories that subtly protest the homogeneity of slave stories told in mainstream society. Each character we meet has a distinct voice, history, and manner of processing the various traumas that unite them. Similarly, relationships in this book resist categorization – from the mother-daughter bond between Rue and Miss May Belle to Rue’s friendship with Varina, nothing fits into a standard literary trope which is so refreshing. The latter in particular was developed so well – with Atakora carefully exploring the evolution of Rue and Varina’s friendship from one seemingly bathed in innocence to one entrenched in power imbalance and treachery. Her attention to detail and vivid descriptions bring the story to life in a way I have not experienced with many books, especially those that are set in circumstances so far removed from my own. Atakora takes the time to introduce layers into each plot point and in doing so, pays a beautiful tribute to the unheard and unjustly stereotyped stories of slavery.
The structure of the novel itself plays a key role in elevating the book and creating an intimate relationship with readers. At first, I was not sure as to how I would feel about the narration – whilst largely third-person, there are unexpected shifts to first-person and even omniscient narration which help construct a story that is as whimsical in its structure as it is its content. This, in addition to the time-period switch, may sound overwhelming but I quickly fell in love with Atakora’s stylistic decisions in this regard and felt as though they reflected the tumultuous times that the book is set in, serving to only draw me closer into the tale. A more astute reader may also see this as a metaphor for the way in which characters must fill in the gaps present in their own stories with the help of those around them, akin to the way in which the book shifts perspective to present readers with that sought after information. The book in effect can be visualized as an intricate mosaic stitched with the fabric of many lives. An additional impact of this is the way in which it builds tension throughout the story – the disorganized and unpredictable structure serves to establish a highly suspenseful and ominous atmosphere that only continues to heighten.
Conjure Women truly has it all in terms of the story itself, and the captivating story-telling is so well tailored to amplify the voices that this book aims to share. It is heart-wrenching yet dazzling and I for one cannot wait to see what Atakora does next.