Sugar Money: Jane Harris on Where Fact and Imagination Meet
The basis for many a strong historical novel is a true story, even if that story has come down to us only in the most fleeting way. Such is the case with Sugar Money (Faber & Faber UK, 2017 / Arcade US, 2018), the third novel from author Jane Harris, which reworks the rescue of a group of slaves in the 18th-century Caribbean. As Harris explains, although this is an event which she describes as “a very moving story of great injustice,” it is one about which very little information survives: “just a few paragraphs in the history books, a few ancient documents and letters in the archive at Kew, and some in the archives in the south of France. Plus, of course, the enslaved people at the heart of the story had no voice and are not on record at all.” A challenge then, but not perhaps such a challenge, as Harris’ “first two novels came entirely out of my imagination.”
The spark for the novel struck when Harris came across a brief depiction of the event, which occurred in 1765, in a history book about Grenada: “a ‘mulatto’ slave was hired by some poverty-stricken French monks in Martinique to steal back a number of enslaved people from a hospital and sugar estate in Grenada, people that the monks insisted still belonged to them, despite the fact that the English now ruled the island.” This slave became Emile, one of the novel’s two key protagonists. The second, his brother Lucien, is Harris’ creation, introduced “to lighten the narrative somewhat, by giving Emile a companion, someone to bounce off. Having Lucien as narrator enabled me to create a sibling dynamic between the two brothers which, in some respects, is the engine of the novel.” The addition of a third character, “Emile’s first love, Celeste,” adds a further layer to the novel’s narrative as it “complicates the motivation of the brothers, in a way that (I hope) makes everything a bit more intimate.”
Harris’ immersion in her novel’s world is apparent not only in the text-based research, but also in her attention to its geography and language. Harris visited the areas and discovered that, although “hardly any buildings that would have been standing at the time of the novel still exist… the islands are rural, for the most part, and… it’s much the same now as it was in the 18th century. I was able to trek across Grenada… retracing the steps of my characters, and the experience showed me how difficult the terrain might have been for them.”
Both Harris’ previous novels are characterised by a distinct narrative voice, and this is a writing style strongly developed in Sugar Money. It uses a lyrical language Harris describes as a “hodge-podge,” which is intended to make the novel feel “authentic and lively” and is “based on Creole and French.” For Lucien, Harris also “took into consideration all the ways in which his voice might have been influenced. For instance, he learned to speak Creole from the other enslaved people in whose midst he grew up—but he was also brought up to some extent by a Scottish nurse, so I tried to sprinkle a little Scots here and there. Also, he spends a lot of time with the French monks and is very intelligent, so he has picked up the French language. In later life, there are further influences on his voice.”
Despite the gaps in the testimony, Harris has created a complex novel which touches, among many themes, on religion and colonial oppression. It is a testament to the interweaving of research and imagination which is the hallmark of good historical fiction.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Catherine Hokin is the author of short stories and the novel Blood and Roses, which re-examines Margaret of Anjou’s role in the Wars of the Roses. www.catherinehokin.com