We were thrilled to receive a copy of The House of Erzulie by Kirsten Imani Kasai from Shade Mountain Press. A bit about the book from the publisher:
The House of Erzulie tells the eerily intertwined stories of an ill-fated young couple in the 1850s and the troubled historian who discovers their writings in the present day.
Emilie Saint-Ange, daughter of a Creole slave-owning family in Louisiana, rebels against her parents by embracing spiritualism and advocating the abolition of slavery. Isidore, her biracial, French-born husband, is horrified by the brutalities of plantation life and becomes unhinged by an obsessive affair with a notorious New Orleans vodou practitioner.
Emilie’s and Isidore’s letters and journals are interspersed with sections narrated by Lydia Mueller, an architectural historian whose fragile mental health further deteriorates as she reads.
Imbued with a sense of the uncanny and the surreal, The House of Erzulie also alludes to the very real horrors of slavery as it draws on the long tradition of the African-American Gothic novel.
Stacie: So I hate to admit it but this was my first historical fiction Gothic novel! This isn’t a genre I normally steer towards so I was really intrigued and excited when we were offered this book, especially since it was set in Louisiana in the 1800s.
Rachel: I haven’t read a Gothic novel in years! I was ready to dig in, too. I thought the author’s use of place as a person worked so well here. We focus on this house, right from the title onward, and need to figure out its mystery. This book started out as an academic search for history and became something much stranger.
What follows is our conversation/debrief after reading this thought-provoking (and spine-tingling) new release:
What were your initial reactions to the twists throughout the story?
Rachel: This book seemed like it was a lot about perceptions: how things can be real and not-real, or supernatural or not, just depending on the point of view. Some of the twists, especially those later on, I was really curious about and they kept me reading.
Stacie: I think this was one of the reasons why Emilie and Isodore’s narratives worked so well. It was like seeing different sides of the same coin and I hadn’t originally expected that, so seeing different sides of the plot twist was like opening a door into a whole new world.
How did you feel about the alternating narratives in both time and characters?
Rachel: I have to admit that I wasn’t as interested in the “present” narration of Lydia discovering the journals and the house as much as I was the historical one. This is not the fault of the author, but of my own focus on those two dueling narratives of husband and wife, trying to figure out what “really happened.” The more I think about the present timeline though, the more I appreciate it.
What did you think? How did you see the present narration fitting into the story?
Stacie: I definitely was more drawn to the historical narratives. I felt like there was so much more to digest in those narratives and I really enjoyed the world building. It felt so lush but at the same time so perverse. Honestly, I was never able to wrap my head around the idea of Black people owning Black people. For me that was one of the toughest things to digest in this story.
What did you think of the racial implication of Emilie’s family being Black slave owners and Isodore’s French upbringing?
Rachel: I thought the introduction of a French black man to a slave-holding state was a super interesting aspect to the story. His perspective as an outsider to Southern culture wasn’t just to the distance of being from the North, but from an entirely different continent. There was so much tension between Emilie’s family and Isidore that Emilie completely ignored– either because she didn’t want to see it or because it was under the radar.
Stacie: I thought that was a brilliant idea! Isodore as a foreigner would have a completely different perspective on life in America and on slavery in the states. I’m glad she chose to explore that. The conversations that took place between Isodore and Emilie’s father were very revealing of the attitudes of the time.
Building off of that, how did the location taking place near New Orleans affect the story, if at all?
Stacie: There is so much history embroiled in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole, especially when you consider the free Black population there and their relationship with the enslaved Black population. It’s one of the reasons why I really enjoyed the growth of Emilie’s character throughout her narrative.
How did the treatments of women resonate with you? Not just husband to wife but mistress to slave?
Stacie: The relationship between Isodore and Emilie was complicated from the beginning, as was Lydia’s relationship with her husband. Mental illness and the lack of conversation around it does become central to all of the narratives.
Rachel: For me, this was the real connection between the present and past lines– especially husbands and wives talking about, or not talking about, mental illness. No spoilers, but it was definitely a powerful theme to me.
Rachel: As far as mistress to slave, I kept wanting to hear it from Clothilde’s perspective. I wanted to hear what her take on the whole situation was because I think she could have been the uniting narrative to make sense of everything. But of course, as a slave, she wouldn’t ever have that chance.
Stacie: I hadn’t even thought of that but you’re absolutely right. That could have been an amazing addition to the story. Think about how much Clothilde would have seen in that house. The stories she would be able to tell.
Rachel: With women’s relationships with each other, I think it’s interesting that Emilie’s text is letters to her friend– or it begins this way. That she needs to bare her heart to this friend. It makes it so personal. I can see why Lydia gets emotionally involved with the project after reading it.
Stacie: Yep, that was absolutely heartbreaking. It really highlighted how lonely she really was even though she was surrounded by people. Those correspondences were so well done.
About this book:
Publisher: Shade Mountain Press, Feb. 21, 2018
Author: Kirsten Imani Kasai