Sugar Money by Jane Harris

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.

19 thoughts on “Sugar Money by Jane Harris

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I enjoyed Gillespie and I but haven’t read The Observations yet. It’s always a sobering thought that Glasgow’s historical wealth grew partly from slavery, but I suppose the same can be said for Bristol/Bath and other ports in the UK.

    • Helen says:

      The Observations is great – I enjoyed it almost as much as Gillespie and I. Yes, there were plenty of other ports and cities involved in the slave trade. I suppose the whole of the UK benefited either directly or indirectly.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it is thought provoking, but fun to read as well. I thought she got the balance just right. If you loved The Observations I would definitely recommend reading Gillespie and I as well!

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, I have sadly not read anything by this author, although I have heard many good things about her. I like the sound of the setting and the adventure, especially if it is inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson. 🙂

  3. FictionFan says:

    I’ve had The Observations on my TBR since 2011 – can’t imagine why I keep putting it off! I was tempted by this one, and it does sound good, but decided I should really read the one I already own first. And since you don’t think this one is quite up to the standard of the earlier ones, maybe I made the right choice…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think that’s the right decision. Sugar Money is good, but I think The Observations is better and should give you an idea of whether you like her writing enough to add another book to the TBR!

  4. cirtnecce says:

    I loved The Observations though I have not read any other work of Jane Harris. I am intrigued by the premises of this one but not enough to put it on top of my TBR so I will hang on to this one one a while! Thanks for a great review Jane!

  5. Ruthiella says:

    I loved both The Observations and Gillespie and I and am looking forward to reading Sugar Money! But it is good to know that I will need to adjust my expectations: more of an adventure novel than a Gothic one like her first two books.

    • Helen says:

      Sugar Money is a good book and I enjoyed it, but it has a very different feel from her other two books which were more to my personal taste. I hope you like this one when you read it!

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