The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd
It is a while since I have been so thoroughly engrossed by a book, to the point where no matter where I was, day or night, I wanted nothing more than to be reading this book. Which of course means that it was over far too soon. So this definitely comes under the category of A Good Read.
It’s the fictionalised story of real-life anti-slavery campaigner Sarah Grimké, who was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, in a slave-owning family. But it’s also the story of the (almost entirely fictional) slave girl Hetty who was given to Sarah as a birthday present when she turned 11. The two girls take turns at telling the story, painting two lives closely linked and yet starkly different.
“The skies were bright cerulean, teeming with ferocious winds, spilling mallards and wood drakes from the clouds. Up and down the lanes, the fences were bright with yellow jasmine, its musk a sweet, choking smoke. I rode with the same drunk sensuality with which I had reclined in the copper tub, riding till the light smeared, returning with the falling dark.”
Sarah is the middle daughter (there are also several brothers – her mother is…prolific) and while considered a little plain and too intelligent for her own good, it is her wilfulness and ambition that get her in trouble. As a child she dreams of becoming the first female lawyer and devours the books that her father (a powerful legislator) secretly allows her until he realises that she is taking her dream seriously. When he shoots down that dream, it takes her many years to find another way to do something about the issue nearest to her heart – abolition of slavery.
Hetty, or Handful as she is known among the slaves, might have been happy with her lot – the cruelties of Mrs Grimké, or Missus, notwithstanding – were it not for her mother Charlotte who harbours such hatred of her lot that she devises small revenges against her owners and plots their eventual escape. Handful is practical and in many ways protected by Sarah, but between Charlotte’s unhappiness and Sarah’s abolitionist leanings, she catches the bug – the yearning for freedom.
“The man’s writing looked like scribble. I had to crack every word one by one and pick out the sound the way we cracked blue crabs in the fall and picked out the meat till our fingers bled. The words came lumps at a time.”
The other major character is Nina, Sarah’s youngest sister, who is in many ways a daughter to her. They are so close that it is never clear whether Nina’s small revolutions – from refusing baptism to writing anti-slavery pamphlets – are entirely her own, or the influence of Sarah. She’s an interesting character because she is more beautiful, more determined, more confident than Sarah, and yet it is Sarah’s lead that she follows.
I think it’s important that Kidd chose Sarah to narrate the story, not Nina, because Sarah is undoubtedly more troubled. She suffers from a stammer and, after the dream to become a lawyer is snatched away, never again feels that confidence in her abilities. She fervently feels that slavery is wrong (in fact, the day that she is given Handful she tries to grant her freedom, but of course that isn’t allowed) and more than that, she feels that women and coloured people are equal to white men in the eyes of God, but for much of her life she feels helpless to do anything about those beliefs.
“They say in extreme moments time will slow, returning to its unmoving core, and standing there, it seemed as if everything stopped. Within the stillness, I felt the old, irrepressible ache to know what my point in the world might be. I felt the longing more solemnly than anything I’d ever felt.”
What I thought was wonderful about this book was that it isn’t an anti-slavery treatise (after all, I think we all know these days that slavery is bad, we don’t need persuading), it’s a warm engaging story full of characters painted in all sorts of shades of grey. And there’s action and adventure too, from the terrible punishments meted out to slaves to a planned slave revolution. But there’s also romance, broken hearts, social faux pas and outright castigation. There are complicated relationships between people and there are terrible decisions that have to be made.
I also appreciated that the publishers have included quite a long author’s note at the end detailing Kidd’s historical research, including where she did and didn’t deviate from history in her fiction.
Clearly, I outright loved this book. I now plan to look out all Kidd’s previous works and hope that it all lives up to this high standard.
Published January 2014 by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline.
Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.