Maryse Condé’s grandmother Victoire died before she was born.  All that was left to remember her was a picture.  Maryse’s mother, Jeanne, was a fierce advocate for education and strongly believed that blacks were superior to white and mixed race people.  When Maryse found out that her grandmother was illiterate, light skinned and raised Jeanne by working as a live in cook for a white family, she was shocked.

This book was born out the research that she did into the life of her grandmother.  It is a strange mix of biography and historical fiction.  It is based on facts with sections that are clearly fiction because no one knows what happened.  There are also a few times when the author adds that she wished something bad would have happened to enhance the story.  That’s a little awkward.

Victoire’s mother was 14 when she died giving birth to her.  She had refused to name the father so everyone was surprised when it became obvious that the baby had a white father.  In the 1800s in the French Antilles mixed race women were prostitutes.  The child was scorned from birth by everyone but her grandmother.  As a teenager Victoire was sent to a local well off black family to work.  She was dismissed when she became pregnant by the man that the family hoped would marry their daughter.

She found another job with as a cook with a white Creole family.  She was an amazing cook.  She also loved music.  When the daughter of this family married and moved to Guadeloupe, Victoire and baby Jeanne went with her.

The relationship between the white family that she lived with and Victoire was confusing and complex.  Jeanne was raised as a member of the family with emphasis on education.  She looked down on her mother the servant.

For the first half of this book I wasn’t impressed.  The writing style is different than other books I’ve read.  None of the people in the book made very good life decisions.  All the men were just running around impregnating anyone who held still long enough.  Victoire was a wooden caricature.  In the second half of the book I came to have some empathy for her.  Her dealings with her very proud daughter were sad and infuriating.

I learned a bit about the history of the French Antilles that I didn’t know.  The book also dealt a lot with race relations on the islands from the late 1800s to the 1930s.

Originally written in French

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