SUGAR ISLAND by Sanjida O’Connell (John Murray, £17.99)

After O’Connell wrote the factual Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World, she drew inspiration for her latest novel from a moving diary by British actress Fanny Kemble, who married an American, only to discover he was a slave-owner.

Sugar Island opens in 1859 when Emily and her father arrive from Britain to make their fortune on the US stage. Illustrious and beautiful, she is assiduously courted by the eligible New York lawyer Charles Brook.

She finally agrees to marry him but after an idyllic honeymoon in Italy he takes her to his plantation in Georgia. She is distraught when she sees the men, women and children toiling in the cotton fields; beaten, raped, starved and barely housed, with neither dignity nor hope. She is torn between her concern for the slaves and the love for her husband ‘slowly being poisoned’ by his demands for ‘total obedience and submission’. Believing she is losing her identity, she helps alleviate the plight of the slaves, agreeing to teach Frank to read, although both acknowledge the hopelessness of the situation.

With the abolitionists in the North threatening war and his failing cotton crops, Charles will only let her take their baby daughter to safety if she agrees not to publish her subversive pamphlet. Trapped. she realises that: “Fighting for an end to slavery, fighting for equality within a marriage, fighting for her own independence — all that was as nothing compared to the life of this little girl.”

A well-researched and sensitive story evoking a ‘twisted version of paradise’.

O’Connell writes with passion. Having delved into this distressing period of American history, she concludes: “There are always more heart-rending accounts of cruelty than you can possibly imagine.”