Wednesday, January 17, 2007

All Souls' Rising, pt. 2

by Madison Smart Bell
pgs. 56-119

I knew it, I knew it before I even started reading All Souls' Rising that I would have to suffer through some horrible, violent images, the type of images I generally avoid if only because they leave me with a disgusted and disappointed view of humanity. But brutality is just as much a part of life and its beauty, and it's salubrious, I think, to remind myself of that every once in a while. Though it isn't the reason why I chose to read All Souls' Rising, it is certainly serving as that reminder whether I like it or not.

The meat of the story, in fact, begins with the live crucifixion of female slave for killing her illegitimate baby. Three sentences into the first chapter, Bell writes, "There had been some bleeding from the punctures and the runnels of blood along her inner forearms had hardened and cracked in the dry heat, from which the doctor concluded that she must have been there for several hours at the least." Alright, I thought when I read that line, I knew that was coming. It was a fully expected blow to the imaginary senses and as much as anyone could take an image like that in stride, I did.

What I didn't expect was the long, excruciating scene in which Claudine Arnaud, mistress of a plantation, drunk, drugged, jealous and crazed, cuts out a slave girl's growing fetus and then proceeds to violently cut her neck. The girl's only crime, it should be said, was to accidentally spill a tray of coffee but the spill was merely an excuse for Claudine to punish the girl for having sex, most likely unwillingly, with Mr. Arnaud. Unfortunately, no detail is left out in this horrifying scene. Try this on for size: "The blade furrowed through a whitish layer of fat; there was no blood, oddly, until the viscera slithered and slapped down tangling over Claudine's feet, and then she bled."

But in his way, Bell illustrates a point that many writers before have tackled. Claudine, sold as she was to her husband - albeit in a much more civilized way - purchased for nothing more than as a breeding mare, forced to leave her home, family, and friends, and openly despised and mocked when she fails at her one task to produce and heir, she is little more than a slave herself. It is a sympathetic view of such a despicable character but it is, I think, a real one as well. It's not hard to understand that the reason Claudine hates Mouche the slave girl so much, isn't that she has sex with her husband and is pregnant with the child she herself can never produce. It is that Mouche, fresh off the boat from Africa, isn't broken in who she is or in her belief that she belongs to no one else but herself. "The voice [Mouche's singing] came out of her essential African self, and Claudine recognized that after all she was still untouched in her identity; it was infuriating."

Such is just another vulnerability of slavery: to be subject and held accountable for someone else's unhappiness, fears, anger, and disappointments. And through it all, All Souls' Rising reads like a dream, a horrible dream but a smooth, irresistible dream nonetheless. I can't put it down.