This terrifying tale of exploitation was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Loosely based on a real story, it describes an escape attempt made by a group of slaves in 1765. Tragically, they weren’t making a bid for freedom. Conditions in Grenada were so horrific under the invading British they aimed to return to their far-from-kind French former owners.
Jane Harris’ fictional narrator is an adolescent boy called Lucien. It’s his compelling voice that makes this novel gripping reading. This story features racism and casual sadism but Lucien, who has spent his life in slavery, begins the novel optimistically hoping for adventure.
Lucien is happy to be reunited with his much older brother, Emile, after a long separation. Unfortunately, the siblings’ current ‘master’, Cléophas a friar in a French religious order, has nefarious aims. He wants the brothers to travel to their former home in Grenada. Once there, they must find the 42 slaves the Friars lost when the British grabbed control of the area and smuggle them back to the French-controlled island of Martinique. Cléophas believes clawing back his ‘property’ will boost the order’s declining finances but has no interest in undertaking the risky venture himself.
For Lucien this is a chance to prove himself a man. Older, more worldly Emile, recognises the dangers and the duplicitous nature of the friar. Emile makes multiple attempts to leave his little brother behind in relative safety, but his powerlessness means both brothers have no choice but to carry out their orders.
Horror and Hope
Sugar Money is told from Lucien’s view, in a lively style mixing English with French and Kréyòl, avoiding past tenses and plurals. I don’t know enough about this historical period to judge the authenticity. To me, Jane Harris did well to strike a balance, giving Lucien a distinct voice but preserving the novel’s readability for English-only speakers.
One of the most distinctive aspects here, is Lucien’s upbeat outlook and huge capacity for hope. Some sections are surprisingly light-hearted. Though he’s surrounded by risk, Lucien takes every opportunity he can to impress his adored big brother and chat to girls.
Lucien’s resilient attitude doesn’t mean the horrors of slavery are ignored. His good humour in the face of adversity makes the barbaric treatment meted out by European slave owners, and revelations about the brothers’ appalling childhoods, all the more shocking. The contrast of light and dark, hope and despair make this a memorable novel.
Verdict: Lucien is a compelling character and the close relationship he shares with his brother is wonderfully well drawn. Sugar Money isn’t comfortable or uplifting reading but given the topic, it’s exactly as it should be. Jane Harris has created an engaging narrator who shows great humanity and even optimism in the face of terrible circumstances.