House of Rougeaux opens with the brutal rape and murder of a young mother right outside the door of the hut where her small children huddle in fear. Abeje and her older brother Adunbi – with barely 10 years of age between them – are left to fend for themselves as slaves on a Caribbean sugar cane plantation in late 18th century Martinique.
With the help of the other slaves, the orphans are given enough food to eat until they can work and earn their own small portion.
As she grows, Abeje discovers that – to her – the plants have spirits. Eventually they speak to her and she learns she can use their power to heal the sick.
We spend around the first quarter of the book with Abeje between 1785-1860. Then we jump to 1949 Philadelphia, then back to 1925 Montreal and then even further back to 1853 Montreal.
At this point – about halfway through the book – I was feeling a little lost, trying to follow the threads of the characters and remember who was who and where they fit into the family tree.
Then a realisation hit me – House of Rougeaux doesn’t really follow characters. It follows the gift of healing and second sight as it’s passed down through the generations and inhabits Abeje’s descendants around the world.
A treatise on brutality and oppression
More darkly, it soon becomes quite clear that the narrative also traces the effects of oppression throughout the generations. First the brutal lives – and deaths – of slaves on the Island of Martinique in the early 20th century. Then racial and gender discrimination, once Abeje’s descendants make their way to Canada, then America and finally, Europe. Gay men, single mothers and black and/or female musicians.
The horror of circumstance is, in a lot of ways, secondary to the importance of spirituality and family and friends supporting each other.
Stunning language and imagery
Though not an easy read, the language and imagery used is incredible. I still get shivers thinking of the scene where the new overseer sets a pack of dogs onto Abeje with the order to ‘Kill!’. She stands, stock-still, and summons the spirits to her. The dogs reach her and behave as though she has become invisible. The spirits have saved her life.
This event, combined with Abeje’s soon-famous healing abilities, ensure her survival where many other slaves are either callously murdered or negligently left to starve or die from overwork in the fields.
- If you like the sound of this book, you’ll also love Sugar Money, by Jane Harris.
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Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.