A mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing–and for the conjuring of curses–are at the heart of this dazzling first novel.
Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a midwife; and their master’s daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.Magnificently written, brilliantly researched, richly imagined, Conjure Women moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue, Varina, and May Belle, their passions and friendships, and the lengths they will go to save themselves and those they love.
Conjure Women by Afia Atakora is a book that captured my imagination from the very first page. The intriguing world that Miss May Belle and her daughter live in, becomes all the more interesting when it is revealed that both women have healing abilities – the likes of which are uncommon in the deep south at the time.
At the heart of Conjure Women is the examination of the mistrust of women and their abilities in the society, as in this case, of the deep south. The people’s mistrust in Miss Rue’s healing abilities and the fear of her alleged ‘hoodooing’ and conjuring skills, is sharply opposed to the almost blind faith in what is essentially the white man’s religion, which is represented and propagated by Bruh Abel – a former slave. In Conjure Women, religion, as upheld by Bruh Abel, is depicted as being mostly based on blind faith and very little on actual facts. It stands in stark opposition to the healing that Miss Rue practises, which is shown as being based on actual knowledge of plants and their healing capabilities.
‘I ain’t much more than a woman that knows some things, things anybody could know if they wanted to. Ain’t no devil in the woods, Jonah. Ain’t no lover.’ – Miss Rue
I read the novel as a shockingly relevant story that can be applied to the workings of lots of present-day African societies – where Western religion, ideas and culture, take unquestioned precedent over traditional knowledge, beliefs, and cultures.
In Conjure Women, female intuition and knowledge are vilified and associated with witchcraft – so much so that Miss Rue’s position within her village and society become threatened to the point where she is almost run out of town, and it takes the intervention of Bruh Abel to appease the angry villagers. Men are generally violent and suspicious towards women, except for Jonah, who harbours a terrible secret himself – one that moved me to tears when he revealed it to Miss Rue.
Conjure Women conjures the harshness of slavery but also the difficulties that come with freedom and change – especially for Black people in the south. It is full of twists and turns, but at the centre remains one steadfast and unrelenting thing: women and the power they hold, a power that seems innate, a power that outside forces try to diminish, but a power that is undeniable, and firmly rooted in their femininity. Theirs is a power that conjures up the strongest of opposition and resistance in the face of some of the most sinister and unimaginable opposition. Afia Atakora’s debut novel is a moving tale about femininity, female strength, and loyalty, but also a tale of love, hope, and resistance.
*Thank you to 4th Estate for the advance copy of Conjure Women.