cover image Conjure Women

Conjure Women

Afia Atakora. Random House, $27 (416p) ISBN 978-0-525-51148-9

Atakora’s haunting, promising debut explores the legacy of a Southern plantation in the years leading up to and following the Civil War. Miss May Belle, a “conjure woman” known for casting spells to relieve ailments, helps fellow enslaved women with childbirth and treats their cruel master, Marse Charles, for sexually transmitted infections. Alternating in chapters titled “Slaverytime” and “Freedomtime,” Atakora follows May Belle’s daughter, Rue, who learned her mother’s knowledge before her death. At 20, Rue continues living on the plantation grounds with most of the other former slaves after the war ends and Marse Charles disappears. His daughter, Varina, however, stays behind in hiding from those wishing to seek vengeance for the master’s abuses. After Rue helps with the birth of an unusually pale baby born with “oil-slicked black irises,” the infant is blamed for the spread of a mysterious disease. A charismatic black preacher named Bruh Abel promises that a baptism will heal the afflicted, while Rue concocts her own plan and continues to secretly care for Varina, whom she grew up with and takes pity on. Through complex characters and bewitching prose, Atakora offers a stirring portrait of the power conferred between the enslaved women. This powerful tale of moral ambiguity amid inarguable injustice stands with Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. Agent: Amelia Atlas, International Creative Management. (Mar.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the book's title.