Conjure Women: Beautifully written, hard-hitting

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsConjure Women by Afia Atakora science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsConjure Women by Afia Atakora

Conjure Women (2020) by Afia Atakora is a first novel that I can hardly believe is a first novel. It’s a beautifully written, hard-hitting story of an African American healer just before and just after the end of slavery in the US. It’s not a fantasy novel, but I’m reviewing it here at FanLit because it has a few magical realist elements, and because it’s in part about magic, and people’s belief in magic, even when none is actually taking place.

In 1867, Rue is respected as the healer, midwife, and conjure woman in the little town that grew up in the former slave quarters. She feels, though, that she’ll never be as good at it as her late mother, May Belle. Rue doesn’t actually have magical powers — instead, she has medical and herbal knowledge that she presents as magic because that’s what people expect. She keeps some other secrets, too, that help protect the town from outside interference.

The trouble with being the village witch, though, is that the village can quickly turn on you if a sickness arises that you can’t fix. A disease called the Ravaging strikes the town’s children, and people blame Rue when she cannot cure it. Suspicion also falls on Bean, an eerie-looking child who seems to be immune to the disease. The townspeople start looking instead to Bruh Abel, a traveling preacher who offers a different worldview.

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora

To protect herself and Bean, Rue resorts to desperate measures. She’s not always sympathetic. There were moments I wanted to say to her, “Your solution to this problem is what???” Then again, sitting comfortably on my couch, there’s no way I could possibly know the fear that drives her to it.

Interwoven with this plotline are chapters taking place in the past, before and during the Civil War. Atakora slowly unfolds the story of how Rue got to this point and her complicated relationships with her mother, May Belle, and with the plantation owner’s daughter, Varina. Rue and Varina are the same age and have kind of a mutual fascination with each other but, as May Belle points out, the power imbalance means they can never really be friends. Gradually the full picture comes into focus, revealing both the horrors of the plantation and a possible way forward for Rue.

Conjure Women feels like big-L Literature, like something you could teach in a college class along with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It’s a richly layered book full of complex characters, secrets, and folklore, with a few moments of ambiguous magic. Atakora illuminates a period of time when the formerly enslaved were officially free, but definitely not safe. The moving back and forth in time can take a little while to get used to, but once you do, it works fantastically well to build suspense. I was riveted by this book, and highly recommend it.

Published in April 2020. A mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing—and for the conjuring of curses—are at the heart of this dazzling first novel. Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a midwife; and their master’s daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom. Magnificently written, brilliantly researched, richly imagined, Conjure Women moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue, Varina, and May Belle, their passions and friendships, and the lengths they will go to save themselves and those they love.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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2 comments

  1. This one is definitely on my list.

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