Saturday 8 May 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd (2014)

In my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I review novels set in the nineteenth-century, but written in the twenty-first. This week, it’s the turn of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 novel, The Invention of Wings.

The book tells the story of Sarah Grimké, based on a real abolitionist from Charleston, and Handful, a fictional character born into slavery in the Grimkés’ household. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah’s parents “gift” her the ten-year-old Handful. Already disgusted by slavery, Sarah tries to reject her “present”, marking the start of a long and complex relationship between the enslaved Handful and her reluctant “mistress”.

Handful is a compelling character and her relationship with her mother, Charlotte, was my favourite part of the novel. Charlotte, a skilled seamstress, creates story quilts telling the history of her life and those of her African ancestors and repeats fables to Handful passed down by her own mother—among them the idea that they once had wings. Handful, despite her captivity and the horrific experiences she goes through, is active in her own story. She’s more decisive than Sarah and I found myself looking forward to returning to her point of view.

Sarah, as a child, is a driven character too, longing to become a lawyer and certain in her opinions. But she spends much of the novel knocked back and unsure how to act. For me, her eventual triumph, as she and her sister tour the North lecturing in support of abolition, was a little rushed. I would have liked to see more of her coming into her own. I also wondered about her struggles with her cultural inheritance. While I know there were those born into white, slave owning families, who abhorred the “institution”, it was harder to believe that Sarah wouldn’t have internalised any of the racism around her.

Kidd’s prose is beautiful and her research shines in all the best ways as she tackles a terrible period of American history. As a writer of historical fiction, I particularly enjoyed her author’s note detailing the decisions she made and the true stories that inspired her creation of Handful. 

Overall, as with other novels about American slavery I’ve read, like Valerie Martin’s wonderful Property (2003) and Dolen Perkins-Valdez's heartbreaking Wench (2010), The Invention of Wings at times makes for painful reading, but I think fiction like this still plays a powerful role in bringing a human voice to the facts we read about in history books.

Which novel would you like to see me review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Instagram, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook now, and the paperback will be published next month! For monthly updates on my writing and blog, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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