Disregarding that promise, her father’s wife sells her out of spite. Pheby is marched to a faraway slave jail, where her new master, Rubin Lapier, torments her, making her his favored companion, mistress of his slave auction house and brothel, mother to his children and bearer of his abuse. Pheby soon learns to fear Lapier, a dread she suffers for the rest of her time on his compound, known as “the Devil’s Half Acre.”
Before her arrival at the jail, Pheby’s perspective feels naive and unspecific. Despite being warned against conceiving a baby while she is enslaved, Pheby has a tryst with a lover and later wonders, “How could I be carrying a child?” She frequently uses her imagination to escape her desolation, at one point dreaming of her mother: “I coasted off again and could not only see Mama, I could also smell her.” Her mother’s familiar scent clearly moves Pheby, but no description invites the reader to share the feeling. She relates events as they happen to her but only inconsistently anchors them in the details, dialogue or personal emotions that would give Pheby’s character texture and singularity.
As Pheby settles into life under Lapier’s brutal surveillance, her point of view becomes a more essential window to the story. She witnesses the jail’s daily operations and institutional horrors, and her unique position enables her to engage in acts of defiance. Sometimes small and mundane, sometimes dangerous and overt, it is these acts that most illuminate Pheby’s particular care and resourcefulness. “It was time for me to become my own savior,” she realizes. “My days as a girl were gone. Now I had to think like a woman.” She marshals her means to do what she can, always aware that her survival depends on acting the part of a loving wife to her slave master. When Lapier calls for her, she notes, “I hated the way he made my name sound like a question, when it was most certainly a command.”
The high wire Pheby balances on provides the novel’s keenest tension, but its potential is sometimes lost among underserved narrative threads and plot points that don’t pay off. Ultimately, Johnson’s author’s note may be the most fascinating chapter of all: a description of the true stories that inspired the novel.
Ellen Morton is a writer in Los Angeles.
Simon & Schuster. 288 pp. $26