Afia Atakora’s debut novel, set in the rural South, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, is a complex exploration of the deeply held tensions and continual trials that infuse a small, isolated community of former slaves.
The story centres around Rue, who has inherited the position of midwife and healer from her mother, Miss May Belle. Practicing the kind of “practical magic” that keeps everyone healthy and sustains amicable relationships between members of the community, she is a solitary, stoic figure who quietly and unceremoniously binds this small group of families together.
After the death of their master, these formerly enslaved members of the plantation have continued to run things as as they’ve always been. But two events threaten to tear apart their relatively peaceful lifestyle.
First, the birth of Bean, a baby Rue delivers, has a caul and dark eyes, which are taken by the community as a bad omen. Secondly, the arrival of Bruh Abel, a travelling preacher who has come to convert the them, upsets the delicate balance of their lives within this tightly knit group of people.
Flashing back and forth between “wartime” and “peacetime,” the first half of the book unfolds as a battle between Rue and Bruh Abel over the soul of the community, as her position as “conjure woman” comes under suspicion. Their struggle also evokes the tension between the past and the future, while pitting the older religious traditions against the Christianity adopted from their former masters.
But the second part of the story more closely follows the relationship between Rue and Marse Charles’ daughter Varina, who have been close their entire lives, and are woven together as two halves of the community’s whole. Varina’s continued existence on the plantation is a carefully guarded secret, and part of the enchantment that Rue surrounds them in, to place this former plantation away from the reaches of the outside world.
Conjure Women is part historical fiction and part magical realism, and one of its most compelling themes is the exploration of conjuring or “hoodoo” practiced by Rue. Any reader of African-American or Caribbean literature will recognize certain motifs, such as women transforming into crows and flying away, as well as the ways that magic is presented as a means to subvert the position of domination. But the kind of conjuring practiced by Rue is based less in enchantment and sorcery and more in care for the community, as well as certain strategic deceptions that allow for a peaceful existence in the new era of Jim Crow.
It is a strong first novel, that delves into themes such as the nature of freedom, and the deep intertwining of the world’s dark and light sides. Full of compelling characters and intense relationships, it offers the reader a complex and carefully rendered portrait of a transformative period in the lives of African-Americans.