Raphaël Confiant: Madame St-Clair, Reine de Harlem (2015)

Raphaël Confiant: Madame St-Clair, Reine de Harlem (2015)

Raphaël Confiant, from Martinique, explores his island's history. His Madame St-Clair: Reine de Harlem is a novelised biography of Queenie (1886–1969), or Stéphanie St-Clair (born Stéphanie Sainte-Claire in Martinique), who emigrated to the USA and became a notorious gangster who ran a numbers game, an illegal lottery within Harlem. She also becomes the friend, for instance, of the eminent W.E.B. Du Bois and the poet Countee Cullen, a homosexual who was very briefly Du Bois's daughter Yolande's husband.

Confiant's novel has many laugh-out-loud events, is full of apparent admiration for Stéphanie St-Clair for her spunk, her almost androgynous nature, her fierce feminism, but doesn't shrink from the violent streak that was certainly in her, the brutal determination not to allow anyone to stand in her way.

Before all that though, Stéphanie Sainte-Claire came from a very modest background in Martinique, where she first found work in the relatively wealthy Verneuil household and accepted being raped at night by the adolescent Eugene, the family's son: her only fears were getting pregnant and losing her job. She loses her job over a trifling matter anyway, and with the death of her mother leaves initially for France. But in Marseilles, after only about seven months in the mother country, she sets sail (third class) for New York, where she becomes 'St-Clair' on Ellis Island.

After starting life in New York with an Irish family poorer than her (she at first finds it hard to believe there are poor whites) Stéphanie associates with the infamous Forty Thieves, although she ends up completely severing O'Reilly's penis and testicles, and on blinding Duke in one eye has to escape from New York for a time before she is forced to join many others as mere statistics pulled out of East River by the cops. She gets the wrong bus out, which is held up by the Ku Klux Klan and she's repeatedly raped by the monsters. But, almost by miracle, she escapes relatively intact and is helped by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Several months later, when she returns to New York, Duke has been killed and with relief she sets up home in Harlem.

It's quite by chance that Stéphanie discovers that the 'medicine' Jamaica Ginger contains virtually all alcohol, which at a time of Prohibition is really good news: alcohol is in theory banned, but much good stuff is smuggled through Canada, the prairies of the Mid-West provide wholesome material, although the rot-gut chemically adulterated liquor produced in New York can send a person blind. So too it turns out can Jamaica Ginger, but it provides Stéphanie St-Clair and her companion Lewis with a decent living until she decides to opt out and go for the gambling, although Lewis fights with her and she accidentally breaks his neck and runs out on a manslaughter the cops put down to a burglar.

And so Stéphanie St-Clair thrives and makes pots of money out of illegal gambling, living the life of a black aristocrat on Edgecombe Avenue, Sugar Hill, where the cops generally leave her alone. OK, she pays some of them well to be left alone to her business, and continues to do so until – Prohibition ended – other shady characters such as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano begin to muscle in on her territory and she is forced to compromise by taking a big cut in profits.

The other stories of Stéphanie St-Clair ratting on bent cops, telling her tales in a column in a highly reputed Harlem paper, etc, are gems. But the one about her falling in love with a religious guy and shooting him for screwing a younger girl (although certainly based on fact) somehow falls flat, as though added without consideration for the main story. Which is a shame, as this is a hell of a read.