Sugar Money

Written by Jane Harris
Review by Jasmina Svenne

Just before Christmas 1765, two mixed-race slaves, Lucien and his older brother Emile, are charged by their master Father Cléophas to travel from Martinique to their childhood home of Grenada to lure away the formerly French-owned slaves lost when the British invaded the island. Emile in particular has misgivings about the mission, but both he and Lucien are spurred on by the hope of being reunited with the warm-hearted Céleste, who played such a significant part in their past. But the inherent dangers of their journey mean that one false step might be their last…

Inspired by true events, Jane Harris’s ambitious third novel may be set a world away from her usual Scottish backdrops, but the world she conjures up through her trademark use of an unreliable narrator is just as convincing. Through her clever use of quirky, slightly ungrammatical English, sprinkled with French and kréyol (Creole), Harris manages to capture the voice of young Lucien (who thinks he might be 13 or 14) without a single jarring note. It is through his eyes that the action unfolds, and though he is an intelligent boy (as witnessed by the shreds and patches of knowledge he has picked up by always keeping his ears open), it is also obvious that, like Bessy in The Observations, Lucien has managed to retain some of his naivety, despite his traumatic upbringing.

Even minor characters come to life in Lucien’s pithy commentary, and his exuberance means that the novel is illuminated with flashes of humour, despite the very dark subject that lies at its heart. The landscape of Grenada also becomes another character, with its steep hills, lush undergrowth and night-croaking frogs. One of the best books I’ve read this year (and there has been some stiff competition).