Book review: Sugar Money, by Jane Harris

Migrant workers cutting sugar cane on a plantation in Trinidad, circa 1897. Illustration by W. Paget (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Migrant workers cutting sugar cane on a plantation in Trinidad, circa 1897. Illustration by W. Paget (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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In some ways, it feels as if the full horror of slavery is only just beginning to be processed by modern western society. Solomon Northup penned his now-famous memoir Twelve Years A Slave in 1853, but it wasn’t until 2013 that his book was turned into a hit film, giving a powerful voice to generations of people who had previously been little heard, certainly in mainstream cinema.

Similarly here in Scotland, it is only relatively recently that artists have started to interrogate our role in the slave trade, notably Graham Fagen in The Slave’s Lament, first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and currently on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Jane Harris grew up in Glasgow and attended Glasgow University before moving to London. Her latest novel, Sugar Money, is set about 100 years before the events of Twelve Years A Slave, but things are just as bad for slaves in this era as they were in the following century and Scots do not come out well. The “Goddams”, otherwise known as the slave owners, are both English and Scottish and are portrayed as unfeeling masters.

The enslaved protagonists of Sugar Money, young Lucien and his older brother Emile, are charged by their master to return to their former home of Grenada to smuggle back 42 slaves taken by English slave owners. The tale is based on a true story Harris discovered when she was in the West Indies from the book Grenada: A History Of Its People, by Beverley Steele, which told a brief history of a slave sent by his master to steal other slaves from his enemy.

Unlike her previous works, The Observations and Gillespie And I, both of which had a lone protagonist, Sugar Money focuses on the relationship between the two brothers – Lucien, who is an eternal optimist, and Emile, who is more concerned (and rightly so) about what the future may bring.

The pair are sent away on a ship to begin their quest, and when the Grenadian slaves express hope for the future as they are taken away from their bleak existence, Emile is quick to quash their optimism. However, it is Lucien’s voice – bright and upbeat, in an enchanting mix of English, French and Creole – which really makes the novel. His language is deliciously descriptive: “Naught but a slice of corossol had passed my lips that morning and my belly was biting me” is just one example of the lyrical quality which infuses the text.

Sugar Money is a historical novel, but it is also a story of people and relationships; and when one of those people is Lucien, it makes it hard to put down.

*Sugar Money by Jane Harris, Faber and Faber, £14.99