Conjure Women

Random. Mar. 2020. 416p. ISBN 9780525511489. $27;.
DEBUT Deftly interwoven and emotionally involving, Atakora’s accomplished debut moves among several eras. There’s slaverytime, when Miss May Belle serves as both healer and conjurer of curses on the plantation of Marse Charles as she teaches daughter Rue her ways. There’s wartime, when Union soldiers march in and Varina, the hapless but demanding daughter of the master and a childhood playmate to Rue, suffers multiple losses. And there’s freedomtime, when Miss Rue, now midwife/healer to the old plantation’s community of freedmen, is suspected of witchcraft, though she says she’s “just a woman who knows some things.” Rue feels an uncanny affinity for a difficult baby she has delivered, a baby that could be her punishment or her salvation if only she plans things correctly, and she has an equally complicated relationship with preacher Bruh Abel, whom she thinks of as a sham even as he tries to turn her from her conjuring ways. Meanwhile, a secret she hides deep in the woods drives the narrative forward.
VERDICT Atakora effectively handles the before-during-and-after structure, enriching her story. If its center is the vibrant Rue, the entire community finally feels like the main character. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 9/9/19.]

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