The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Having read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees earlier in the year, I was curious when I received a copy of her new novel from the publisher. I started reading The Invention of Wings that very night and couldn’t put it down.

The inspiration for The Invention of Wings came when Monk Kidd visited the Brooklyn Museum for an exhibition celebrating the achievements of women. Already having an idea that she would like her next novel to be about sisters, Monk Kidd realised she had found the beginnings of a book when she came across the story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké.

The Grimké sisters were born into the class and privilege of the land-owning (and thus slave-owning) aristocracy of Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1800s. The story is told through the eyes of Sarah, the older sister who, on her eleventh birthday, is given a 10-year-old slave girl as a gift, replete with a bow around her neck. Sarah rejects the idea of a person being gifted to another, and here begins her life-long struggle against slavery. It is while campaigning against slavery that Sarah and Angelina realise that women too are in many ways enslaved. The sisters go on to become radical abolitionists, and also pioneers of the women’s movement in America.

Interweaved with Sarah’s story is that of Hetty, the slave girl ‘gifted’ to Sarah. Through Hetty, we are given a glimpse of a slave’s life and of the brutality one human being is capable of inflicting on another (thankfully, Monk Kidd shies from too many gory details). Hetty, at least, is given some hope of a better life – defying the laws of the time, Sarah teaches Hetty to read and the two form a close bond. Though often tested, it’s a remarkable friendship and one that lasts their whole lives.

Sharon Peterson is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.