This book was a birthday present from my sister - we went into a bookstore together, and she told me that I could choose any book that I wanted as a present - now there's a great idea!
The first 2/3 of the book is set in Haiti in colonial times - a time and era that I did not have much knowledge of. Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, had the worst reputation in the Americas for their treatment of slaves, as it was considered to be more economical to replace slaves that died from being overworked, than to treat them as humans. And Haiti is the only country in the world that obtained independence as a result of a slave revolt. I found that as I was reading this book, I was checking up every evening on the facts - what had actually happened in the view of history, and which characters were based on real people.
It is the story of Zarité (called Tété), a slave born with intelligence and a thirst for freedom (sounds like a cliché!), who is sold at age 9 to be trained as a lady's maid for the new wife of Toulouse Valmorain. The story follows Tété as she moves to the sugar plantation of Valmorain; as she is raped by Valmorain; as her first-born child is sold away from her; as she raises both the legitimate and illegitimate children of Valmorain; as her mistress dies; and as revolution breaks out in Haiti and the family has to flee the plantation.
The story then moves from Haiti to Cuba and on to New Orleans where Valmorain works his way into the Creole society there. I won't be spoiling the ending by saying that Tété is emancipated (this is revealed in the opening chapter) and settles down to live as a free "woman of colour" in New Orleans in the early 19th century.
I found the character of Tété to be very compelling, and I kept reading in order to find out what would happen next, and what decisions she would make. I also enjoyed the historical aspect of this book - I learned a lot about the history of Haiti and Louisiana in the late 18th and early 19th century; and it was interesting to see how it fit together with the history of France and the French Revolution. It was a book that kept me awake far too late at night for several nights in a row!
My one complaint with this book was that the ending felt a bit rushed. A lot of action and activity was crammed into the last few chapters. It was almost as though the author had conceived a family epic, but her publisher forced her to keep it under 500 pages.
One interesting point is that I was reading this book in translation (it was originally published in Spanish as La Isla Bajo el Mar). I often don't enjoy reading translations, but in this case I wasn't even aware that it was a translation - it was only when I checked the cover page at the end and noticed the name of the translator, Margaret Sayers Peden. Kudos to her, as the language of the book is very beautiful.
As is the design. It is a beautiful book to read in terms of typeset, layout of the pages, and feel of the pages. My copy has the cover pictured above, but I had trouble finding an image of this cover to use - there seems to be another cover out there that is much more common, but I like this cover better!