Book review: The Invention of Wings

Sunday, 15 June 2014 - 7:15am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Sue Monk Kidd's latest novel is a masterpiece that brings to life the plight of slaves in the Americas and those of the abolitionists who fought to free them, says Shraddha Uchil

Book: The Invention of Wings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Publishing House: Tinder Press/369 pages

We think we know about the atrocities of slavery because we learned about it back in school or saw glimpses of it in a movie or a book. But it isn't until we come across a real and terrible depiction that we realise how little we actually know.

In her latest novel, Sue Monk Kidd attempts to capture the unforgiving brutality of slavery.

A fictionalised account of sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké — who played a major role in the American abolitionist movement of the 1800s — 'The Invention of Wings' is set in South Carolina. In theme, the novel follows predecessors such as Toni Morrison's Beloved and Solomon Northup's narrative memoir 12 Years a Slave (now an Oscar-winning film).

The novel begins with Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy family, receiving 10-year-old slave girl Hetty, who is nicknamed Handful, as a present on her 11th birthday. But the young Sarah abhors slavery right from the start and promises to one day free Handful. In an act that will have repercussions on both their lives throughout the book, Sarah teaches Handful to read and write, leading to both being punished severely.

The book follows their journeys over the next 35 years, as both strive to make their own lives, all the while forming a friendship — a complex one marked by guilt, defiance and estrangement.

Kidd narrates the tale beautifully, alternating between the first-person voices of Sarah and Handful. Sarah struggles with words and with a stammer and Handful's slave dialect expresses hurt, longing and defiance.

Although Sarah belongs to the wealthy Grimke family, she appears to be more tied down than the slaves owned by her family. By virtue of being a woman, she is told in no uncertain terms that she has no right to ambition, thus crushing her dream to study and practice law. This prejudice will continue to haunt her for the remainder of her life, even as she gains a national following for her abolitionist crusade.

Meanwhile, Handful, although a slave, has the spirit of a fighter and is never devoid of hope, unlike Sarah. In this way, she is freer than her mistress, despite being physically in chains. A slave girl who was taught to dream big by her mother Charlotte early on, Handful manages to create an internal life of ideas and possibility and is able to carve out a sliver of independence within the context of her life.

As you make your way through the book, you realise that neither of the women end up following the path prescribed for them by convention and the world they are born into.

Kidd appears to have found it easier to flesh out the character of Handful than that of Sarah, probably because it was easier to pull a person entirely out of your imagination than rely on facts and documents to build a picture of a woman who actually existed. Although both characters experiences loss, Handful's story is more appalling.While the book manages to weave fact and fiction in a seamless manner, it is this shortfall that takes away a little bit from the experience. We want to empathise with Sarah, but her emotions just don't ring true.

That said, Kidd has done a brilliant job researching the real-life characters — not just Sarah and her sister Angelina 'Nina' Grimké, but those of Denmark Vesey — a free slave famous for planning a rebellion in the United States in 1822 — and Quaker Israel Morris as well as abolitionists John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Weld.

The novel also follows the story of Sarah's sister Nina and Handful's mother Charlotte. There is much disappointment, pain and tragedy as they all struggle to take control of their world. In the end, it is the strength of these women and the portrayal of their courage and conviction that moves you and leaves you knowing much more about the struggles of the slaves and the abolitionists who worked to free them.

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