Set in Suriname between 1965 and 1979, The Cost of Sugar is the story of two Jewish step sisters, Elza and Sarith, descendants of Dutch settlers and the children of a plantation owner. Their pampered existences become intertwined with the fate of the plantations as the slaves decide to fight against the violent repression they have endured for too long.
The Cost of Sugar begins when Elza and Sarith are teenagers. They’d grown up with each other since they were children and were close until they started to think about marriage. They’re two very different people; Elza is kind and sometimes a bit of a doormat whereas Sarith is strong-willed and flighty. That’s kind of a nice way to describe Sarith to be honest.
I think this is the first book I’ve ever read that had a narcissist protagonist, or maybe I’m more aware of what the characteristics of a narcissist are so could actually name and somewhat understand Sarith’s actions. To begin with, Sarith seems like a typical rebellious and jealous teen. She’s beautiful and gets a lot of attention and had sex when doing so before marriage is obviously a big no no but when Elza meets a man and apparently finds love and marriage, Sarith gets jealous. She can’t stand someone else being the centre of attention or getting something she doesn’t have. It isn’t even a case of something she wants, it’s like Sarith doesn’t know what she wants, or she wants something just because someone else has it.
As the years go on it’s clear that Sarith is incredibly self-centred and craves attention. She wants to socialise and go to parties, even when she does get a husband and has a child. She wants to be able to have affairs but as soon as her husband seeks attention elsewhere and maybe even falls in love she does everything in her power to destroy it.
It’s not just the sisters attitudes to love and relationships that is different but also their attitude towards slaves. They’ve both grown up with house girls and slaves and are used to others doing things for them but where Sarith is cruel and sees the servants as lesser than, Elza cares about them and loves those who have been a part of her family for so long. Sure, as they’re slaves it can be argued they don’t have much of a choice about being kind towards Elza but there is a different amount of respect between Elza and her slaves and that of Sarith and hers.
While all the family drama is going on (Elza is content to be a wife and mother while Sarith implodes her life in different ways) there’s also the uprising of runaway slaves who attack plantations, killing the white owners, setting the slaves free and looting and burning what’s left. As The Cost of Sugar is almost always from the white characters points of view, these attacks are seen as a looming threat and it’s almost like a ticking timebomb for how long their life of privilege can last. There are few “good” white characters. Elza’s husband for instance came from the Netherlands to Suriname as an adult so has a different idea of how slaves should be treated as he’s so used to what is seen as the norm there. He teaches his houseboy how to read and write and speak Dutch and gives him the opportunity to earn his freedom. Still, any white character who has slaves and does nothing to change things isn’t that good.
The Cost of Sugar is an interesting look at the that time period and the dynamic between plantation owners and slaves outside of North America. I don’t think I’d read a story that focused on white European slave owners rather than American ones before. While there are certainly a lot of similarities, there were some cultural differences too which was interesting. For instance, the bigotry towards Jewish white people from the protestant white people is brought up throughout the novel. The Cost of Sugar is a pretty engaging read and the short chapters and different characters points of view help make it a quick read. 4/5.