The Wedding Gift is Marlen Suyapa Bodden's debut novel.
Alabama. The Allen Plantation. 1840's. Sarah is born to her slave mother Emmeline. Three months later the plantation owner's wife gives birth to her daughter Clarissa. They have the same father. The two girls grow up on the same land, but live very different lives.
What I quite enjoyed was the two viewpoints Bodden used to tell her story - that of the slave Sarah and that of Theodora, the owner's wife. It was an interesting and thought provoking look at enslavement - from two perspectives. While Sarah is property according to the law, is Theodora any different? Her husband treats her badly, but society, obligations and other ties prohibit her escape. Neither woman is in control of their life.
Bodden has done her research - many historical facts are woven into her narrative. At times though, I felt like getting that information across overshadowed the story at the cost of character development. I did not find myself as drawn to Sarah as I thought I would. Instead it was her mother Emmeline who was my favourite.
But I did find myself caught up in Sarah and Theodora's stories. Would Sarah run? Or stay with Clarissa? Would Clarissa marry for love or to add to her father's wealth? There are many supporting characters whose stories I found myself wanting more - especially the midwife Miss Mary.
However, I was disappointed with the ending - it was abrupt, jarring and just didn't fit for this reader. While it was an admirable twist, I just didn't feel like it belonged with the story I'd just immersed myself in. The second reveal at the end was telegraphed long before it was finally spelled out. I found it somewhat annoying that Bodden held this back - I found myself backtracking and rereading to see if I had missed something.
I also admit to being spoiled - two of my favourite books are slave narratives - Allende's Island Beneath the Sea and Hill's Book of Negroes. It was hard not to compare Bodden's work with these two stellar novels. For a first novel, I think Bodden did a good job and will continue to grow as a writer. Her passion for her chosen subject did shine through - she is a human rights lawyer and a descendant of slaves herself) Read an excerpt of The Wedding Gift.
Marlen Suyapa Bodden is a lawyer at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, the nation’s oldest and largest law firm for the poor. She drew on her knowledge of modern and historical slavery, human trafficking, and human rights abuses to write The Wedding Gift, her first novel. Marlen is a graduate of New York University School of Law and Tufts University. In 2012, the University of Rhode Island awarded Marlen an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
You can find Marlen Suyapa Bodden on Facebook and on Twitter.