It's a little last minute… But I made it! Two reviews in January! A good start, methinkst.
First published in: 1987
This edition: Picador, 1988
Genre: american literature
Cover information not available
One of my bookish friends really recommended that I read Toni Morrison. He was with me when I bought a copy of SONG OF SOLOMON, his favorite. I haven't read that one yet. I want to. But I've perhaps always intimidated by the idea of Toni Morrison. So when I found a copy of BELOVED, her most famous book, I thought it would maybe be best to start with that one. I should note that I've never seen the Oprah movie, but I'd heard of it before and that helped me to get started on this as I felt BELOVED would be more approachable to read as my 'first'.
It's good that I try not to get further information about movies I don't plan on watching (any time soon) or books I won't be reading (any time soon). I keep the element of surprise that way. Because anything I thought I knew about BELOVED was based on my own assumptions on what it could be about. I connected Oprah's love of it to Oprah's love of THE COLOR PURPLE, a book I read and cherished when I was a kid. I just assumed it would be something similar. Of course I was wrong (and I should really stop assuming). One of my first notes about this book opposed my assumption BELOVED would be like other books: I noted instead that BELOVED certainly is unique.
BELOVED is set in the mid 1800's: slavery is about to be abolished. But Sethe has already made the flight to freedom, following her children to Cincinnati, Ohio, to live with them and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs.
Years pass by before Sethe is reunited with another former slave from Sweet Home, Paul D, and a love affair blooms… but Sethe's new chance of happiness is threatened by the heavy burden she carries. Her daughter Beloved, dead at Sethe's own hands, is making her way back to 124 Bluestone Road.
After finishing the book I learned that the story is based somewhat on Margaret Garner, a former slave who infamously murdered her own child in order to save her from a life of slavery. Morrison adds mystery to it, beginning her story as a sort of poltergeist tale. The reader knows a child died at 124 Bluestone Road, and it would appear as though that child is haunting the house. My interest was immediately peaked, as I do love a bit of a supernatural element to a story.
Later on, upon the arrival of a young woman named Beloved (a fascinating character and open for interpretation, if you pay attention to subtle clues as you read), the story shifts to complex themes such as mother-daughter co-dependency (and how the co-dependency transforms into a mutual, destructive obsession), sisterhood (another lead character is Denver, Sethe's other daughter), trauma, loss of individuality and the meaning of freedom. And it is then that I really got into the story.
It took a while though: the prose, while beautiful, was at times hard to follow. (It took me until about page 40 to really get into the book.) Morrison has a talent for not stating the obvious in the most lyrical way possible. I at times had to re-read a paragraph, either because I loved the prose, or to try and figure out what it was I'd just read, to make sure I understood Morrison's meaning correctly. BELOVED is definitely one of the more challenging books I've read as of late.
What mostly made me think of Morrison as an interesting author, is her emphatic writing. I found it admirable, her ability to create soulful prose that rings authentic with her characters and has the strength to deeply move me. I could wax poetic about my feelings about her writing, or I could just post an example and let her writing speak for itself:
"Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right or permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon – everything belonged to the men who had the guns. (…) And these 'men' (…) could (…) stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. (…) A woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia."
The book also includes a few unexpected (but still fitting) stream-of-consciousness chapters which have the same effect as the piece I quoted up there. I loved that Morrison could express empathy through words but also through form: it's clear that these are fragmented souls, people who've experienced a lot of trauma. Working through that doesn't involve a precise manual. It's memories, nightmares – all hauntingly unexpected and catching you off guard. (And that's why freedom is not necessary really freedom. These characters are never free from fear and from the past.) The flashbacks, the stream-of-consciousness chapters, the almost poem like paragraphs: it's confusing, fragmented writing. And it fits.
While none of these characters will have a complete resolution – re: trauma – the story does come full circle. A mother's love for her daughter results in tragedy; a daughter's love for her mother is what overcomes it. Beautiful.
It's Morrison's clear skill in understanding humans that makes me want to explore more of her work. It made me feel that Morrison is one of those few "important authors". Her work, while full of tragedy, is not theatrical. It's not obvious. And I should never assume anything about it ever again.