Friday, March 8, 2019

Book Review - Jewell Parker Rhodes's Voodoo Dreams

Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Published by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Publication Date: 1993
Format: Kindle, 404 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Marie Laveau has spent her life in the swamp. Surrounded by nature and the enfolding arms of her Grandmere. Yet she's always wondered about her Maman, the other Marie. The truth, which her Grandmere hides from her in the comforting lie that her daughter, Marie's Maman, is off in New Orleans and has no interest whatsoever in her daughter, is that Marie's Maman died at the hands of an angry mob while she publicly practiced Voodoo with her partner in crime, John, a Voodoo priest. If only Marie had the ability of foresight she could have lived in ignorant bliss all her life, instead the world she grew up in starts to shrink, her Grandmere's lap is no longer inviting, and the siren call of New Orleans and her Maman is always present. Eventually her Grandmere relents and they pack up their lives and head off to New Orleans. The city presents countless sights and sounds and so many people for a girl raised in the presence of one woman. There are the DeLaviers, wealthy whites, the girl Brigette looking like a princess out of a fairy tale. There is Jacques, a young sailor who falls for Marie. But there is no Maman. Because even now, in the city where she supposedly resides, Marie's Grandmere can not bring herself to tell her granddaughter that her mother is dead. There would be too many questions.

Those questions can be answered only by a select few. Nattie is an old family friend and therefore has many skeletons in her closet. So while Marie at first stays on the straight and narrow, marrying Jacques, taking care of her Grandmere, trying to find work as a hairdresser, soon Nattie helps to lure her away to Voodoo and John. John wasn't just Maman's partner in crime, he was also her lover, and this is the role he wishes Marie to fulfill. She will make him powerful and young again. She will bear him children that will rule over New Orleans. But John is a very bad man. He is only interested in his power, no matter the cost to those around him. Marie is drawn to him. She needs him like she needs air and she will do whatever he wants her to. Locking her up during the day to bring her forth at night as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans John isn't a true believer, though he takes advantage of the powers of Voodoo. Marie though. Marie scares him a little, because she knows that the power is real. She knows that the spirits talk to her and when John thinks she is performing she is channeling a power greater than any of them. That power scares John and soon it becomes clear; only one of them can survive in New Orleans, and Marie, despite her need for John, is going to make sure she is the victor.

I don't quite know how to describe Voodoo Dreams other than a book I would avoid at all costs. The Emily Windsnap-esque cover design leaves any conception of what you might find between the covers a mere mystery. Needless to say, unlike Emily Windsnap, it is not a middle grade read about mermaids, instead it is about the Voodoo Queen of New Oreleans, Marie Laveau, and is part historical fiction part cathartic sexual predation exorcism for the author, who clearly has many unresolved issues. Having no preconceptions going into this book I was surprised at first by how much Voodoo Dreams reads like so much historical fiction that I love. But any initial regard I had for the book was quickly destroyed by historical inaccuracies, illogical character motivations, just plain creepy and as one of my friends wrote, repellent scenarios, and more than anything, the repetitive writing style. Because I read this book on my Kindle I was curious to see how many times the author used the words "Maman" and "Grandmere." Well, seeing as the book is only 404 pages, coming in at 391 appearances, "Maman" is almost on every page. But the real winner is "Grandmere" coming in at 981 appearances, meaning it's on every page at least twice! Seriously, I never want to read those two words again.

Yet again and again this book would baffle me with what it included and what it omitted. Marie Laveau lived a long and fascinating life. When lifespans were short she lived to be at least seventy-nine years old, and some say, including Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story fame, that perhaps she never died. Perhaps she lived on to die battling the Antichrist or whatever. Therefore it is baffling to me that this book takes place over such a short time frame of Marie's life. We follow Marie's life from 1812 to 1822, with a few little snippets starting each chapter from her deathbed in 1881. So instead of seventy-nine years we get ten. And most of those ten are her just hanging out in the swamp with her Grandmere... Why would you choose such a fascinating and underrepresented subject for your book and then constrict yourself to a narrative of only a few years? What's more, her power, her rise to power are almost background noise to the solipsistic narrative that traps us inside Marie's head and her thoughts of her Maman and Grandmere. What about her spy network of hairdressers? What about the true power of Voodoo versus the trappings of the religion to con the gullible whites? Why isn't there really anything of Marie on these pages? Why instead are we part of this weird disconnect where even Marie is just an observer of her own life?

In fact, why doesn't this book actually explore the tenants of the Voodoo religion more? There is no place anywhere in this book that clearly states what the purpose or practices of Voodoo are. What about the narrative tradition brought down through the generations from Africa and the Caribbean? Because I really don't know anything about Voodoo. I don't believe in any organized religion and I kind of let my blanket disbelief cover all religions. If I don't believe in the one I was raised in, I don't believe in others. Yet Voodoo seems fascinating in that so much of the followers history and culture is tied into it therefore I would be interested to learn more, even though I will still be a non-believer. This book is so long and, let's put it nicely, long-winded, and there should have been some place to put in these details but instead I was just grateful that I read Voodoo Dreams on my Kindle because my Kindle means I have access to Wikipedia, and therefore any term or folktale character I could just look it up and fill in the blanks myself. Here's a sign of a bad book, when the reader is spending more time on Wikipedia trying to learn about basic worldbuilding you should have included in your rambling narrative but didn't seem to find the time.

But the most baffling inclusion in the book is the DeLaviers. The DeLaviers are a family that Marie first encounters when she and her Grandmere arrive in New Orleans. The kindhearted Louis spends his life married to his cousin Brigette while pining for Marie. He is also the one writing in his journal on her deathbed while Marie tells the story of her life. Or in this case the heavily edited cliffs notes version of her life. I would say Bowdlerized, but seeing as I'm about to start talking about incest... that would be a vulgarity Thomas Bowdler would heartily disapprove of. Yes, so onto the incest... Brigette's lover and eventually the father of her child is her brother Antoine. I have no idea if these people really existed or are an entire figment of the author's imagination, but either way, why are they here!?! What purpose do they serve the narrative? Is it to show the decadence and double standard of the wealthy elite in New Orleans? Because I think she could have done so without resorting to incest. Again, this secondary storyline takes up chapters that could have been devoted to actually learning the tenants of Voodoo, or even giving some idea of what the city of New Orleans was like during this time. Instead we are stuck in a suffocating room with a guilt ridden woman pregnant by her brother for no reason I can see.

Though this book does specialize in the creepy sexual encounters that will make you want to take a bath in carbolic soap or perhaps even bleach. I will place a trigger warning here, because dear me, I so wish I had been warned. The first of the really creepy encounters with John, the Voodoo priest who will use Marie to rise to power, is when she is a girl of twelve and he comes out into the swamp and fingers her. OK, so that's, yeah, that's gross and child molestation, but it's passed off as maybe a dream, but it so isn't. Oh, but John's creepiness doesn't end there, oh no. Later when Marie is fully under his control and she never leaves their house in New Orleans she bears him a daughter. A newborn daughter he takes out into their little courtyard behind their house and holds in his arms and then starts fingering her vagina while his enormous erection is described. In detail. Until he cums. I actually felt psychically ill. I in fact am physically ill just writing this. To molest your newborn!?! What the hell!?! Why is this in the book? Yes, we've seen the evil ways of John throughout the book, but this seemed like a step too far on the part of the author. It wasn't narratively needed to drive Marie to kill John, it was extraneous, egregious, and just too much. While there was a part of me that kind of liked the book up until this point, every single shred of any positive emotion went directly into pure hatred. This book is beyond repellent. It is odious and every fiber of my being hates it.


Newer Post Older Post Home