THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON, by Sara Collins. Harper, 375 pp., $26.99.
No one is innocent in Sara Collins’ bleak first novel, which traces the odyssey of a young woman from a sugar plantation in Jamaica to a trial for murder in London. The stain of slavery discolors everyone it touches — including, in the eponymous narrator’s bitter judgment, the “anti-slavers” who visit her in prison: “They’ve all got the slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it.”
Frannie Langton has no reason to think kindly of human nature. Born around 1805 on a plantation grotesquely named Paradise, she is the offspring of an (initially) unknown white father and an enslaved mother who, she is told, ran off after her birth. Although older, wiser Phibbah warns her not to overstep the boundaries set for the enslaved by capricious white folks, Frannie can’t resist when her volatile mistress, who catches her sneaking a look at a book, offers to teach her to read. Reading proves a dangerous skill; her master, John Langton, decides to make Frannie the scribe for his secretive experiments inside the plantation’s coach house, intended to prove the biological basis of “the Negro’s … inferior intellect and morality and ambition.”
“I saw things in that coach house that I can’t stop seeing now,” Frannie tells the lawyer to whom her confessions are addressed from jail. “But worse than the things I saw are the things I did.” She gives no details until much later, but we learn right away about plenty of other evils in Paradise. Phibbah is hanged after Frannie is coerced to falsely accuse her of poisoning their mistress. Frannie starts having sex with Langton when she is 14 or 15. She was “relieved,” she writes. “You can find ways to shut things out after they’ve happened, but not when you’re worrying about whether they will.” Finally, a destructive fire destroys the sugar cane and sends a virtually destitute Langton to London, Frannie in tow, in 1825.
In barely 50 pages, Collins sets the stage for all that ensues. Some of the loose ends she ostentatiously dangles are so relentlessly hinted at throughout later chapters that it muffles the impact of their resolutions in the closing scenes. These technical flaws are less important than the ferociously unsentimental portrait Collins paints of enslavement both external and internal, voiced by an agonizingly conflicted narrator. Frannie hates Langton, but when he gives her as a servant to his patron in London, she is shamed to hear herself begging, “No, Massa. Please. Don’t leave me.” Their deeds in the coach house bind her to him, and she fears George Benham as the man who inspired Langton to begin his ghastly experiments. By the time of Frannie’s trial 14 months after her arrival in London, we understand that she has never really left Paradise behind.
In Benham’s household, technically free but terrified of being thrown on the streets, Frannie does her best to appease her new master while providing as little information as possible about Langton’s experiments. After she catches the eye of Benham’s unconventional, laudanum-drinking wife Marguerite, she’s promoted from maid to secretary, and soon the two women are having an affair. But Frannie should have remembered Phibbah’s warning, “Not one thing in this world more dangerous than a white woman when she bored.” Marguerite’s fancy returns to a former favorite, a black houseboy who is now a prizefighter, setting in motion the chain of events that leads to two deaths and Frannie’s arrest.
Some readers will be troubled by Collins’ portrait of an enslaved woman consumed with guilt that is not entirely unearned. Frannie has received privileges as well as punishments from the white people with power over her; she has learned to snatch what she can from life without aspiring to change it. Her love for Marguerite and her inability to break free of Langton are discomfiting, and they’re meant to be. Collins makes her central point clear in Frannie’s searing courtroom testimony. She helped Langton with his experiments, Frannie tells the jury, “Just to have the pages of a book beneath my fingers. Fresh air. Early mornings. A view. A mirror. And a bed. People want to see something unusual in what I did there. There was nothing strange about it. That’s what slavery is.”
It’s a brutally frank admission of how a brutal institution deforms everyone involved in it, victims as well as oppressors. “The Confessions of Frannie Langton” is not a cheerful book, but its scathing honesty and rivetingly complicated narrator demand attention.