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Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Updated: May 18, 2021

“The black baby’s crying wormed and bloomed.”

When a pale and black-eyed baby is born in its black caul, Rue hesitates before freeing it from behind this veil that seems to separate it from life, holds it closer to pre-life, to death. The midwife and healer knows it is a bad omen. And sure enough challenging times await the now liberated slaves living on the former plantation they were once forced to work. Danger and disease, doubts and distrust spread among the community and for the first time Rue, who learned all her wise mother's tricks, is unsure of how to act. As the healer, believed to be in touch with haints and in control of magical powers, her neighbours’ suspicions quickly turn against her.

Was it Rue who has conjured spells and curses to harm their children? Why does she seem so protective of that mysterious black-eyed child, whom she affectionally calls bean? Would they not be safer in the handsome hands of the charming preacher who baptises and promises salvation?

Moving in time between Slaverytime and Freedomtime, Conjure Women takes the reader to the US American South at the times of the Civil War. She explores the difficulties the newly freed people face in a novel world that is not created with their best interest at heart. With her charms and secrets, Rue has managed to construct an almost magical bubble around the slave quarters-turned-town but the outside world puts pressure on her carefully created safety.

The alternating chapters focus on Miss May Belle, the famous conjure woman and her daughter Rue, who reluctantly, but dutifully takes over as healer and midwife after her mother’s death. From their position as outsiders – on the border between the white masters and the other slaves, between the realms of the magical and nature – these two fascinating female characters offer a view on the horrors of slavery, the struggles of freedom, and the blessings and flaws of human nature.

Conjure Women is a captivating, truly enchanting read, and I had to check twice before I could believe that it is Afia Atakora’s debut novel. The characters she creates are incredibly engaging and their development is authentic. The plot is intricately woven, without a gap or mistake. Atakora powerfully explores the themes of friendship and betrayal, or birth and death, of mothers and daughters, slavery and freedom, war and peace, pain and forgiveness – and she manages to do all this so elegantly that it never seem over the top. Besides the fascinating characters, the atmosphere created in this novel is outstanding. Places and scenes become so real, but the atmosphere in Conjure Women is more than evocative visuals. It is an almost tangible feeling, supported perhaps by the hint of haunting, of magic that permeates these pages, and it makes the novel all the more remarkable.

This book is a fantastic piece of historical fiction and I’m very pleased it found its way onto my bookshelf!

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