NovemberThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The struggle of 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights pioneer Sarah Grimké is at the heart of Sue Monk Kidd’s powerful new historical novel. Set – like her bestselling debut, The Secret Life of Bees – in the American deep south, where she grew up, The Invention of Wings unflinchingly depicts the brutality of

slavery in vivid and meticulous detail, placing it in the tradition of novels such as Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison and first-person accounts such as Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave (now an Oscar-tipped film).

This is a world in which “owning people was as natural as breathing” and on her 11th birthday Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy family, is given 10-year old slave-girl Handful as a gift, wrapped in lavender ribbons. But for Sarah, it feels far from “natural” and she rails against the notion of slavery, teaching Handful to read and promising one day to free her – an eventuality that drives the plot as the years progress from 1803 to 1838. By alternating chapters between the first-person voices of Sarah and Handful, we are plunged deep into both perspectives; they share a visceral yearning and “torrential aches” for racial and gender equality.

Everyday rebellions against injustice pattern the plot. “You do your rebellions anyway you can,” observes Handful when her mother is punished for stealing bright green cloth from her owner, in a narrative threaded with an intricate textile motif. “I have knots in my years that I can’t undo,” laments Handful, but, stitch by stitch, a more hopeful future is woven.

In a world beset by modern-day slavery, this is a resonant, illuminating novel. It is a story about searching for a voice to express inexpressible pain. Handful’s “slave tongue” dialect is filled with hurt, longing and defiance, while Sarah, who struggles with speech, “pulled words up from her throat like she was raising water from a well”. It’s when they find voices to articulate the pain of being silenced that they pave their path to freedom.


Review by Anita Sethi, The Observer



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