Conjure Women (2020) by Afia Atakora is a first novel that I can hardly believe is a first novel. It’s a beautifully written, hard-hitting story of an African American healer just before and just after the end of slavery in the US. It’s not a fantasy novel, but I’m reviewing it here at FanLit because it has a few magical realist elements, and because it’s in part about magic, and people’s belief in magic, even when none is actually taking place.
In 1867, Rue is respected as the healer, midwife, and conjure woman in the little town that grew up in the former slave quarters. She feels, though, that she’ll never be as good at it as her late mother, May Belle. Rue doesn’t actually have magical powers — instead, she has medical and herbal knowledge that she presents as magic because that’s what people expect. She keeps some other secrets, too, that help protect the town from outside interference.
The trouble with being the village witch, though, is that the village can quickly turn on you if a sickness arises that you can’t fix. A disease called the Ravaging strikes the town’s children, and people blame Rue when she cannot cure it. Suspicion also falls on Bean, an eerie-looking child who seems to be immune to the disease. The townspeople start looking instead to Bruh Abel, a traveling preacher who offers a different worldview.
To protect herself and Bean, Rue resorts to desperate measures. She’s not always sympathetic. There were moments I wanted to say to her, “Your solution to this problem is what???” Then again, sitting comfortably on my couch, there’s no way I could possibly know the fear that drives her to it.
Interwoven with this plotline are chapters taking place in the past, before and during the Civil War. Atakora slowly unfolds the story of how Rue got to this point and her complicated relationships with her mother, May Belle, and with the plantation owner’s daughter, Varina. Rue and Varina are the same age and have kind of a mutual fascination with each other but, as May Belle points out, the power imbalance means they can never really be friends. Gradually the full picture comes into focus, revealing both the horrors of the plantation and a possible way forward for Rue.
Conjure Women feels like big-L Literature, like something you could teach in a college class along with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It’s a richly layered book full of complex characters, secrets, and folklore, with a few moments of ambiguous magic. Atakora illuminates a period of time when the formerly enslaved were officially free, but definitely not safe. The moving back and forth in time can take a little while to get used to, but once you do, it works fantastically well to build suspense. I was riveted by this book, and highly recommend it.