• Sugar Island by Sanjida O'Connell

    Sugar Island is a fictional story, although it is loosely based on the life of Fanny Kemble, a noted British actress and writer, set around the time of the American Civil War.

    Emily Harris arrives in America in 1858 with her father. An actress of note from England, she has come to America on a tour. Early the next year she is just finishing the Christmas Season in New York when she meets Charles Brook. An eloquent, considerate man, they form a friendship. When her father dies leaving Emily alone in America the friendship becomes romance, and the couple marry. They begin their honeymoon in Italy, intending to visit Emily’s family in England as a part of their travels, however, a message to Charles means that the trip is cancelled and they rush back to the Southern States where Charles’ Plantation is in financial trouble. The true nature of Charles Brook is revealed. He owns 700 slaves. Men, women and children, all living in poverty and suffering systematic abuse from their owner. Her shock turns to horror as she learns how they live, and her own – and her new daughter’s - liberty and wellbeing is threatened when she at first befriends, and then sides with some of the slaves. As war threatens Charles’ way of life, her actions have harsh, far reaching consequences.

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    Emily is a naïve and innocent young lady who is totally unprepared for the reality of her new life, but she has a strong sense of justice and a fire in her that Charles cannot extinguish. Charles is a mean spirited, domineering, stubborn man who is used to his way being the only way. This is a story of two plots. The love followed by disillusionment and disgust that Emily feels for Charles, and her fight for the rights of the slaves; the slaves who are raped, beaten, starved and humiliated routinely. The shock and revulsion when she realises that some of the slaves’ children are of paler skin and look remarkably like the Plantation owner. The imagery is stark and beautifully executed, the plotline is very believable. Inn so many stories it is hard to imagine a face for a character, but in Sugar Island, I could see the sneer, the greasy hair, the swagger of Charles. I could smell the slaves’ village, and hear the sound of the slaves in the fields. The description of the slaves’ hospital is enough to bring one to tears – and the sounds and smell are enough to induce queasiness.

    This is not a history book, and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the timeline. However, it is so believable. From the ( very non Politically Correct) language to the descriptions of the life of the slaves, I was there.

    Don’t enter this book expecting action on every page, nor should you expect a beautiful romance. It’s a thought provoking and sometimes harrowing tale comparing two very different worlds; that of Emily and Charles – rich and well appointed, and the horror of a life of slavery. A tale of betrayal and inequality.

    I give this book a strong 4 Wine Glass score, definitely worth getting hold of a copy!


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