Lust and voodoo in a Florida swamp

April 08, 1993|By Sandra D. Davis | Sandra D. Davis,Knight-Ridder News Service

It starts so simply: a black hotel maid, a young white newlywed and a glass of water. Connie May Fowler's debut novel casts its voodoo spell as eight lives take shape between 1945 and the 1960s.

Ms. Fowler, a Floridian, weaves a compelling tale of heartbreak, love and prophecies unfolding against the backdrop of small Florida towns and a sugar cane swamp.

This magic is bold, the tale clever, solid and ripe with irony. Each voice is rhythmic as the characters take turns telling their stories.

It's all sad, moving and so extremely powerful that it becomes difficult to put down and impossible to forget.

Inez Temple prepares our way. She says that she comes from a family of good, old-fashioned witches. Her power isn't in casting spells, though. It's in seeing the future.

When she meets newlywed Rose Looney and gives her a glass of water with one sugar packet dissolved in it, Inez sees the shiny bars left in the bottom of the glass. This is Rose's future.

Rose is married to handsome Charlie Looney. They have a son, Emory. Everything moves right along until Rose miscarries a baby girl. Her best friend, Eudora Jewel, is pregnant at the same time. She delivers Luella, a healthy girl.

Eudora's husband, Junior, is caring and dedicated. Then he dies of cancer. He's buried in the couple's backyard, although it's against the law and someone has to steal his body from the local funeral home so that he can be planted under the oak tree he loved so much.

Next door, Charlie is a battering, philandering drunk. He takes a meat cleaver to Rose's heart every time he cheats on her and when he eventually sends their boy away to work in the sugar cane swamp. What else could Charlie do? The boy had punched him the last time Charlie backhanded Rose.

In the background, racial tensions thicken. There are protest marches and a new young black preacher who is stressing change through nonviolence.

In the foreground, the supernatural churns with such force that the drums that invite the spirits to swoop down on the sugar

caneswamp are almost audible. Emory toils under the Florida sun, hates his daddy, cuts cane and eyes a sweet black Haitian girl -- Soleil Marie Beauvoir.

She wants him and calls on the gods for their help. Before you know it, she is handing him a glass of water to drink. Soon their bodies are entwined, and the heat of their lust puts everything else out of focus.

But Charlie changes his act, loves his wife the way a husband should, then dies. Rose never had a chance to get used to having him back.

The bars of Rose's prison grow colder and stronger, especially since she can't seem to let go of her dead husband. And she is no help to Emory, who copes with grief by abandoning everything he loves.

The beautiful Soleil Marie is raising the baby Emory didn't know was coming. Inez throws herself into the civil rights movement until an assassin's bullet takes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. away. Inez is devastated. Eudora, Luella -- they, too, are trapped. No one knows how to break free.

Though it might make you think twice about taking a glass of water handed to you by a stranger, the novel does have happy endings. With all the grief they encounter, no one deserves that happiness more than the characters. That is, no one except Ms. Fowler, who delivers a potent first novel.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Sugar Cage."

Author: Connie May Fowler.

Publisher: Washington Square Press.

Length, price: 319 pages, $10 (paperback).

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