The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, (Viking), 384 pages
Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings was released released at the start of the year, but I’ve just finished reading it. This is the first of Kidd’s novels I’ve read, and I’m impressed. I’m sure one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel so much was that it uses one of my favorite devices: paired narrators with very different voices and different understandings of the same events.
In this instance, the narrators are Sarah Grimké and Hetty Handful Grimké. Sarah Grimké’s name may be familiar—she and her sister Angelina were major figures in both the abolitionist movement and the struggle for women’s rights that arose from that movement. The second narrator is a slave held by Grimké’s family, who is given to Sarah Grimké as a gift on her eleventh birthday. This second narrator is an invention of Kidd’s, though Grimké was given a slave as an eleventh birthday present—this slave died of an unspecified disease less than a year later.
Kidd first decided she wanted to write a novel about Sarah and Angelina Grimké and explains that once she’d made this choice “I felt compelled to also create the story of an enslaved character, giving her a life and a voice that could be entwined with Sarah’s. I felt that I couldn’t write the novel otherwise, that both of their worlds would have to be represented.” Handful, in fact, has both the first and the last word. This novel is very much her own story, and she is much more than a mirror reflecting an image of Grimké for the reader.
Each woman is transformed by the end of the novel. Grimké has found the courage to become a public figure, and Handful plans a successful escape for herself and her half-sister. Midway through the book, Handful sums up the different challenges they face: “[Sarah] was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of the people around her, not by the law…. I tried to tell her that. I said, ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you it’s the other way round.'” That statement may seem more suited to the late Twentieth Century than the mid-Nineteenth Century, but it sums up the novel’s two narrative arcs succinctly.
For the most part, however, both women seem grounded in their own time in a way that makes reflecting on their lives and choices from our moment in history uncomfortable and inappropriate. Neither woman is—and I’m deeply grateful for this—completely likeable. Kidd has worked hard to avoid hagiography, and to a large extent she succeeds.
This is a book I’ll be buying for presents: for younger relatives who are having to make their own choices about the direction of their adult lives and for friends who actively examine their own lives and who will appreciate examining these lives as well. The copy of The Invention of Wings that I read was provided as a free ebook in exchange for a review. I’ll soon be buying a print copy for myself—one more gift, and one that the recipient (me) is sure to enjoy.