‘A good story let down by naive and unpolished prose’ – The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

twgbmsbTwo girls grow up together during the antebellum era on the Allen family cotton plantation in the Deep South of America.  One, Clarissa, is the privileged white daughter of Cornelius and Theodora Allen, the other Sarah Campbell, a black slave, also the daughter of Cornelius but by his slave Emmeline.  Throughout their childhood the two girls are close friends, but once they are older and Clarissa is married, Sarah becomes Clarissa’s maid.  As an aside here the title is a misnomer as Sarah is raised to be Clarissa’s maid; she isn’t suddenly presented to Clarissa on her wedding day which for this reader would have made for a more dramatic start to the story.  Sarah longs to be free and dreams of escape, even though the consequences would be terrible if she’s caught.  Eventually Sarah can bear her life no longer and takes steps to realise her dreams.

The Wedding Gift is the debut novel of Marlen Suyapa Bodden a lawyer in New York City at The Legal Aid Society.  Originally self published, the novel made number twelve on the bestselling self published kindle books for 2012.

The story told here is interesting and it kept me reading till the end, although the final twist comes out of nowhere and created more questions than it answered.  Bodden has obviously researched the era, but there isn’t enough period detail to really bring the world alive.  There are some interesting observations on the life of slave women, and the comparisons between Emmeline’s life as Cornelius’s mistress and Theodora’s as his wife, but ultimately still enslaved by him, are deftly made.  The telling of the story, however, lets the whole novel down.  The novel is narrated by Sarah, the slave girl, and her mistress Theodora, but in reality it is Bodden who is telling this story.  She simply cannot move out of the way and allow her characters to speak in their own voice and the result is clunky writing awash with exposition and characters the reader can’t identify with.  Having said that, Theodora’s voice is the more successful of the two.  I wonder whether this is because Bodden felt she related less to this character and so worked harder to make it more convincing, or whether her lack of empathy with Theodora enabled her to move out of the way allowing her to speak for herself.  Either way I enjoyed Theodora’s sections more.

Bodden overuses dialogue to tell the story and it’s terrible.  All the characters speak with the same voice regardless of social position or education.  One page I took at random was all dialogue other than ‘Belle looked sad’ (which in itself is an awful sentence to read) and so the reader is left listening to talking heads with no action or setting descriptions to bring the scene alive.

There are at least two pivotal scenes in the story that I wish I’d been privy to as they would have revealed the characters’ true nature and motivations, but which Bodden allows to take place off stage.  We are then left with a character narrating the action we wish we’d seen.  As a result the emotion evaporates and the reader doesn’t care.

Any Cop?: The Wedding Gift is a good story let down by naive and unpolished prose, but now Bodden has a mainstream publisher by her side I wouldn’t be surprised if she went on to write good gripping stories that will be widely read.

Julie Fisher


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