Peacock's acclaimed second novel centers on the centuries-old secrets that bind together two families —one white, one black—on an old Southern plantation.
The devastating legacy of slavery inexorably shapes the lives of two North Carolina families over a century of changing race relations in Peacock's second novel, after the praised Life Without Water. Tracing the history of Roseberry, a Southern plantation owned by the white Redd family and worked by the black Redds, the novel reaches back to 1855, when plantation master Jennis Redd raped and impregnated slave Cally. This event engenders the primary story of resistance passed down the generations of black Redds: Cally's six-year-old son by Jennis is sold away by the jealous plantation mistress, Lula Anne, who falsely accuses the boy of stealing a pair of her abalone earrings. Mourning her child, Cally herself steals the earrings, and after that, the white Redd children die while the black Redd children grow up strong and healthy. The earrings, kept hidden for decades, become a magical symbol of hope and fear, even after the black Redds gain their freedom and buy property just across the road from Roseberry. But China Redd, born free in 1912, has been a servant at Roseberry almost her entire life, and in 1971, she's outlived the white family and wants to tell her bitter story. Although a heartfelt and thoroughly imagined effort, the book inscribes the black Redds' legacy of memories and survivors' stories in an incantatory, sing-song narration that quickly grows tiresome. The circular plot repeats the extended metaphor of the earrings incessantly. Other recurring motifs include the searing image of attic stairs worn down where slaves climbed them for decades, and Cally's husband Tom's legendary "bone-chilling sigh" of sorrow that sweeps through Roseberry every summer. Of the dozens of often sketchy characters, the main speaker China and her granddaughter Abolene do eventually redeem the painful complexities of their family's history by using their stories to sustain a fragile yet enduring hope for the future.