On her eleventh birthday Sarah is given her own personal slave as a present by her mother. This slave is Handful, and she is thrust in front of Sarah during her birthday celebrations with a ribbon around her neck. Sarah is horrified that she is expected to own another human being; and she decides to treat Handful better than the other slaves in her family’s household. Sarah is also a real life person, born in South Carolina, where the novel is set, in 1792.
Her father is a lawyer and a plantation owner, a symbol of the freedom Sarah is denied as a girl; and her mother Mary is strange character, simultaneously caring and cruel. They own several slaves and Sarah has grown up with them, but owning Handful herself makes her take a closer look at their role and treatment. Though it is illegal, she teaches Handful to read, and is cornered by Handful’s wilful mother, Charlotte, into promising to free Handful if she can.
They are close in age, have grown up in the same place, and their lives are presented as a sort of parallel through dual narratives. In this way, Monk Kidd demonstrates that Sarah and Handful are ‘connected’ to one another. She succeeds in making their voices distinct, and shows events from their two different perspectives, which illustrates the disparity between their status and experience.
For long periods of the novel, in which years pass, they barely see each other and do not have much to do with one another. It is only at the end of the novel that their relationship is shown to be poignant and meaningful – and I found all this a little heavy handed. Sarah already has doubts about the morality of slavery when Handful is presented to her, wrapped in a bow, and Handful’s wisdom and desire for a better life are with her from the start. Instead of affecting each other’s lives, I think Monk Kidd intended them to keep each other in the back of their minds and remember that slaves and owners are just as human as each other.
Sarah’s desire to be more than a wife and mother drive her to explore new opportunities, but other than teaching Handful to read, her mother’s strictness does not allow her much freedom. Later in life she is attracted to Quakerism (despised by her Episcopalian family) and manages to live away from her overbearing mother and does indeed find a path for herself, spreading the word of Quakerism and eventually campaigning against slavery. This is the side of Sarah’s life that attracted Monk Kidd to her story, and what inspired her to write The Invention of Wings.
It was also the brief mention, in old papers, of Sarah’s slave, Handful, though there was barely any information about her (this is mentioned in the Tinder Press press release). Instead Monk Kidd created a life and a personality for Handful, dragging her into the daylight and moulding her into a character. Handful is a spirited girl, resigned to life but with hopes of a better future, but she does not always feel deep enough to be real. And neither does Sarah. For a character based on such an amazing real life women, Monk Kidd’s Sarah is a little flat; she is pious and often sees herself as a victim, which got a little annoying – but her goodness and determination redeem her.
There are moments of brilliance in The Invention of Wings, and several quotable lines, for example:
I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil.
But as a whole the ‘sweeping’ nature of the novel meant that it meandered and sometimes lost focus.
Sue Monk Kidd’s 2003 novel The Secret Life of Bees was hugely successful and also dealt with civil rights issues, as well as mother-daughter relationships, as The Invention of Wings does time and time again (Handful’s mother Charlotte would warrant a blog post all to herself); but that was a complete fiction, set in the 1960s, and therefore did not carry with it the weight and delicacy of a novel about slavery. The Invention of Wings is brilliant as a concept, as a premise, and does contain wonderful moments; but the end result is not sturdy enough to hold itself up.
Published on 7th January 2014 by Tinder Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.