PROPERTY

By Valerie Martin

Doubleday. 196 pp. $23.95

Valerie Martin's compelling new novel about the antebellum South describes the lurid, slippery power of the slavemaster over the slave, and how that authority debases and deranges not only the captive men and women but also the master himself. Or rather, herself. For Property delves into the bloody and violent negotiations between a Southern white mistress and her desperate human "possessions."

Manon, Martin's pretty yet disaffected protagonist, is married to the beastly Mr. Gaudet. This gentleman farmer owns a plantation north of New Orleans, and within that principality indulges in his sadistic pleasures. These include his sexual abuse of the comely Sarah, Manon's secretive personal maid and the mother of two of Gaudet's own children -- the oldest being Walter, who is mentally retarded -- as well as his brutal suppression of a slave insurrection he suspects is about to occur. Manon, who spends much of the novel melancholic and half in love with a dissipated onetime suitor, Joel Borden, fancies herself far removed from Gaudet's wicked ways, and also believes that she is the rightful, if neglected, owner of her beautiful servant, whom her husband has hijacked.

Sarah is the focus of Manon's unrelenting attention, as the two women live in excruciating closeness to one another. And yet the maid remains always maddeningly distant from her mistress. Sarah brushes Manon's hair without saying a word; she washes her body and changes her clothes without a flicker rippling her eerily placid expression. But what goes on in Sarah's heart? Manon, and the reader, constantly wonder. Whom is she familiar with? What is she so quietly thinking? What schemes go through her clever mind?

The novel's plot revolves around the threat of the revolt for which Gaudet waits and watches. When African-American rebels attack the plantation, Sarah finally displays the intelligence and puissance Martin has hinted she possesses: After Gaudet is killed and Manon is left, shot and bleeding, in a muddy swamp, Sarah leaves her mistress without a thought and escapes with one of her children.

It is after this flight that Manon's true nature is revealed to us. Though up to this point in the narrative she has seemed to live in the shadow of her Caligula-like husband, the poison of slavery has made her just as sick as it has him. She emerges from the insurrection physically broken, deprived of her beauty but all the more imposing as she becomes obsessed with Sarah. She determines to spare no cost to get the slave back with the aid of a ruthless slave-catcher.

Martin's book is a painful and elegant study of Manon's kind of power, the authority of the mighty over the deprived. Less than a jailer, more than a guardian, Manon exercises her control over Sarah in ways that are intimate and shocking, and have the horrifying familiarity of what happens between lovers, or mothers and daughters. Martin's consistent grace as a writer renders these episodes all the more disturbing. In one scene, Manon drinks Sarah's breast milk, an act that reveals her desire to both dominate and love this slave.

The effects of this unhinged dominion corrupt every aspect of the protagonist's body, spirit and mind, and inevitably a thread of repulsion runs through Property. When Manon's mother suffers the last pangs of cholera, the rendering of the woman's terrible convulsions, during which she vomits a great mass of black bile, evokes the corroding connection between the two races. And when Manon awakens in the mud of the swamp, she looks at her hand, which is "black" until "the mud on my palm cracked open, revealing the pale flesh beneath."

Some of the scenes in the novel are so astonishing they would not work if Martin did not have such a fine and sure touch. Reading Property brings to mind the work of Kara Walker, the prodigious paper artist who makes sublime Victorian-style silhouettes depicting, with surreal detail, the monstrous and forcibly sensual ties between master and slave.

Not everything in Manon's story is bleak, however. The retarded Walter may be an infirm symbol of the barbarism of slavery, but he is also the one person toward whom Manon displays any kindness or humanity. She warms to this son of her husband; she coddles him. Sarah, in the end, is not so lucky. I can't reveal the ending, but suffice it to say that her lot is cold and awful, and that Manon, as a 19th-century slaveowner, does not know that she has become similarly debased. *

Yxta Maya Murray's most recent novel is "The Conquest."