The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $25.95).
When prestigious plantation owner Cornelius Allen gives his daughter Clarissa’s hand in marriage, she takes with her a gift: Sarah—her slave and her half-sister. Raised by an educated mother, Clarissa is not a proper southern belle she appears to be with ambitions of loving who she chooses and Sarah equally hides behind the façade of being a docile house slave as she plots to escape. Both women bring these tumultuous secrets and desires with them to their new home, igniting events that spiral into a tale beyond what you ever imagined possible and it will leave you enraptured until the very end.
Told through alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Theodora Allen, Cornelius’ wife, Marlen Suyapa Bodden’s The Wedding Gift is an intimate portrait that will leave readers breathless.
“According to anti-slavery activists, there are over 27 million slaves worldwide. In fact, there are more slaves today than at any other time in history, including during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when about 11 million Africans were kidnapped and taken to the New World. Drawing inspiration from her work as a human rights lawyer as well as the desire to give a voice to her ancestors kidnapped from Africa from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Marlen Suyapa Bodden wrote a powerful tale of bondage and ultimate freedom in The Wedding Gift based on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800’s.”
Because this novel explores American slavery and resistance, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I had high hopes for The Wedding Gift in fact. However, Bodden’s story ultimately disappoints. The author could have done so much with this novel, but her narrative falls short.
None of the characters in The Wedding Gift are well-developed; they all practically beg to be fleshed out more (and they should have been). Their voices are too indistinct from one another. The dialog feels artificial, clumsy, and sometimes even unnatural, and there is just too much of it at times–usually a mistake no experienced author would make. This, to me, is evidence of Bodden’s background. She is a lawyer by profession, and this is her first novel. Yet, take a look at Tara Conklin’s debut novel The House Girl published earlier this year featuring similar themes of slavery and resistance. Conklin was a lawyer, but her story was not only highly readable but the novel was also well-written. Bodden’s narrative is unconvincing, and her ending, for me at least, seems contrived and even shocking.
If you are interested in African American slaves and their resistance, I highly recommend Jonathan Odell’s The Healing, Lalita Tademy’s Cane River, and Conklin’s The House Girl. Bodden’s heart is in the right place, but her execution is off.
I strongly urge you to read this novel for yourself. Perhaps you will see the story in a different light.