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CONJURE WOMEN by Afia Atakora

Happy Publication Day to Conjure Women!

Conjure Women straddles the liminal period between slavery and freedom as three women, Miss Mae Belle, her daughter, Rue, and Varina, the master’s daughter and Rue’s playmate, circle each other with jealousy, suspicion, lies, and vengeance. Mae Belle is the healer, or “conjure woman,” on the plantation, tasked with keeping the slaves healthy but also providing magic secretly to them. Rue learns at her feet and inherits her mother’s position as the country is emerging from the war.

The freed slaves stay on the plantation land and create a community said to be protected by a spell incanted years before by Mae Bell with Rue as their trusted healer. However, as time passes, that trust erodes. The former slaves turn to Christianity taught by the roving prophet, Brother Abel, just as Rue delivers an infant with hauntingly disturbing black eyes and as the children of the settlement begin to die of a mysterious illness. Rue’s former friends accuse her of inciting the illness and cavorting with spirits in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the spell protecting the settlement appears to be weakening as incursions by angry whites harm people and property.

The novel has two timelines: before the war, focusing on Mae Belle and Rue as a child, and after the war, from the perspective of Rue as an adult. The differing time periods are a strength of the book as they so wrenchingly illustrate the everyday evil of slavery and its aftermath as well as the complicated relationships between the masters and slaves on plantations. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about this time period; I can’t remember another book that depicts the immediate post-war experience for slaves so well.

I did have a hard time connecting with Rue, though. This may be by design; she was a reserved character, protected by layers of bravado, skill, and misdirection in order to protect herself and her secrets. Additionally, the presentation of information within each timeline was nonlinear in a way that I thought was jarring, but again, that might be deliberate.

Individual scenes in the book were so striking, I’ve been thinking of them long after I closed the cover. In particular, a scene with a celebratory dance the Master insisted on holding despite the Union army’s advance, and its implications for Varina and Rue has lodged in my chest.

Afia Atakora’s well-researched debut novel Conjure Women will appeal to readers of literary fiction and those interested in novels about slavery and the resilience of freed slaves.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.