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.
When Lena Johnson is invited to participate in a research study that will pay all her bills and provide for a future that is beyond comfortable, it is an impossible offer to pass up. A college student whose grandmother passed away leaving a pile of medical bills, and whose mother, Deziree, suffers from a mysterious health condition that requires expensive care, Lena jumps at the chance to help contribute to the family’s survival.
But she quickly discovers that the experiments conducted at the research facility, located in a small midwestern town called Lakewood, are of a deeply strange and violent nature. Furthermore, all participants in the study are people of colour, whereas the researchers and observers are white.
In this deeply troubling novel, the treatment of marginalized peoples throughout American history is continually evoked, in particular, emphasizing the ways that black bodies have served, intangibly, as the site of exoticization and othering, and concretely, as subjects of violence.
The Great Lakes Shipping Company, the organization which operates the experiments, bestows a fake life upon Lena, to provide a front on those rare occasions that she is permitted to speak with her loved ones. Each day she receives a brief explanation of how she spent her time. In this fake life she learns Microsoft Excel, receives leadership training, and becomes involved in small office spats (who stole whose yogurt, and the like), while in her real everyday experiences, as a research subject, she undergoes various forms of torture, psychological and physical, while being forced to take round after round of mysterious pills. The most disquieting fact of all remains that no one who participates in these studies–not only its subjects but also a significant portion of those performing them–has any idea what the expected outcomes are, or what benefits they hope to provide.