Sivak’s bold debut is an original take on the Haitian and French Revolutions, seen from the viewpoint of a biracial woman awakening to her privilege and learning how to wield it in liberty’s name. In 1791, Sylvie de Rosiers, eighteen and beautiful, is the cosseted only daughter of a coffee planter in Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the West Indies. Her father’s status means she was born free, unlike the Black mother she never knew, and she disdains politics in favor of standard feminine pursuits. But the island’s enslaved people are rising in rebellion. After she sees Vincent Ogé executed for his racial justice activism, Sylvie realizes her complicity in the horrific system.
The action scenes are strikingly written as Sylvie and her half-brother Gaspard narrowly escape being killed and, eventually, sail to Paris, where they stay with their kindly aunt. Among their neighbors are the Duplay family and their soon-to-be-famous tenant, Maximilien Robespierre. As Sylvie’s mind expands through their conversations, she falls into an affair with Robespierre’s confidante and mistress, Cornélie Duplay, though admires Robespierre deeply and can’t get him off her mind.
It takes audacity to insert a fictional character amidst the French Revolution’s major players, but Sivak manages to pull it off. That said, Sylvie can be reckless—leaving the house in pearls with impoverished sans-culottes nearby isn’t the brightest move—and the prose occasionally lands heavily. The scope is impressively wide-ranging as Sylvie, from her unique vantage as a woman of color, observes the shifts between different political factions and realizes her power and its limitations.
Cinematic details unfold on the page as violent discord plays out on Paris’s streets and Sylvie ponders the similarities and differences between the two revolutions. Thought-provoking and passionate, this story marks Sivak as an author worth watching.