It’s been a few days since I finished reading Sugar Money, Jane Harris’s third novel. But I’ve still got Lucien, the 12-year-old narrator, chatting away inside my head in his mash-up of English, French and Creole. I’m still worried about whether he’ll be okay. The characters in this book really do get under your skin that much.
Inspired by a true story, Sugar Money is Lucien’s account of his mission, alongside his much older half-brother, Emile, to smuggle forty-two slaves from British-ruled Grenada to French-ruled Martinique in 1765. Both brothers are slaves themselves and reluctantly embark on the extremely dangerous mission on the command of their French master, Father Cléophas.
Lucien is a cocky, naive kid whose main dual concerns are to compete with his older brother and gain his approval. Emile simply wants to protect his younger brother, though as with younger brothers everywhere, this proves difficult.
What follows is a strange mix of humour and horror. It becomes clear that as awful as the conditions are in French Martinique – beatings, hard labour and slavery passed on through the generations – Father Cléophas is confident the Grenada slaves will agree to attempt to escape with Emile and Lucien because their lives under British rule are even worse.
The horror is muted somewhat through Lucien’s eyes. Although he reports on it faithfully, he’ll often be more interested in activities such as chatting up the nice young ladies wandering along the road ahead.
The language of Sugar Money is incredible. Mainly told in slightly grammatically incorrect English, with smatterings of French and Creole, it’s jarring at first but absolutely essential to getting the voice right. My advice is to sit down and spend a good stretch at a time reading this book. It took me a few minutes each time to get into the rhythm of the writing.
Here’s a sample:
My throat did rasp until I near choked, after which I made-believe to die of an apoplexy and was rewarded by a weak smile from Emile, though he soon grew serious once more.
‘So, we are agreed?’ he asked. ‘We do it?’
‘Have you still got your ticket? You might need it if we’re stopped.’
I showed him the pouch around my neck.
‘Tjenbé rèd, ‘ti pantalons. Pa moli,’ he said.
Be strong, little britches. Don’t give up.
Warning to grammar-nazis: this book will make your eyes bleed.
Sugar Money is the closest thing you’re going to get to a time machine to travel back to mid-18th century Martinique and Grenada. It really is an incredible book.
Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.