When I discovered that there was a new Jane Harris book coming out last year, I couldn’t wait to read it. It had been a long time since the publication of her last one, Gillespie and I, in 2011, but I could still remember how much I loved that book – and her previous one, The Observations, which I read a few months later. I’m not sure why it has taken me until now to get round to picking up Sugar Money, then, but it’s probably just been a combination of too many other books to read (as usual) and a fear that, after anticipating a third Jane Harris book for so long, I might be disappointed by it.
While Gillespie and I and The Observations are both set in 19th century Scotland, Sugar Money takes us to a very different time and place: the Caribbean in the year 1765. Our narrator, teenage Lucien, and his older brother Emile were brought up on the island of Grenada before being taken to nearby French-controlled Martinique as slaves. Their French masters need more workers to labour on the sugar plantations, so the brothers are entrusted with a secret mission: to return to Grenada, once also a French colony but now ruled by the British, and bring a group of forty-two slaves back to Martinique.
Emile and Lucien are the obvious choices to be given this task, with their prior knowledge of Grenada and its people, as well as Lucien’s ability to speak English. It’s not going to be easy, though; there is no guarantee that they will be able to persuade the slaves to join them, when they cannot offer freedom but only the exchange of one master for another – and even if the slaves do agree to come, will they be able to escape from the island without being caught?
Sugar Money, however unlikely it may seem, is based on real historical events which are described in the Afterword at the end of the book. The true story of slaves being involved in the smuggling of other slaves is certainly an interesting idea to base a novel around. Jane Harris grew up in Scotland and she highlights both the Scottish and English involvement in the slave trade, as well as drawing comparisons with slavery in the French colony of Martinique. She doesn’t shy away from describing the brutality of slavery and there are some quite graphic details of the ways in which slaves are treated by their masters and the horrific punishments given to them for the most minor of ‘crimes’, but she writes about all of this in a matter-of-fact sort of way, showing us the evils of slavery without preaching about it, which is something I liked and found quite effective.
I also loved the relationship between Emile and Lucien. Lucien has all the enthusiasm and sense of adventure you would expect in a boy of his age and, of course, it sometimes leads him into danger. Emile, who is much older and wiser, protects him as far as he can, but understandably loses patience at times, while Lucien admires and respects his big brother but doesn’t always understand his actions! I liked them both, but we naturally feel closer to Lucien because he is our narrator. Jane Harris really excels at giving her narrators strong, distinctive voices of their own. To immerse us more fully in the Caribbean of the 18th century, she has Lucien narrate in a sort of Creole mixed with French and English, and an explanation for his unusual speech is given towards the very end of the book. He couldn’t be more different from Bessy Buckley and Harriet Baxter, the narrators of her previous two novels!
I found this a very entertaining read, but it didn’t impress me quite as much as the other two Jane Harris novels. It works well as an adventure novel (Robert Louis Stevenson is mentioned as an inspiration in the acknowledgements), but it lacks all the clever twists and turns that I loved in Gillespie and I. It has impressed the judges of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, though, and has been included on this year’s shortlist. The winner will be announced in June; if Sugar Money wins, I’ll be very happy for Jane Harris, but as I haven’t read the rest of the shortlist yet I don’t know whether there’s another book that is more deserving.