40 Beloved, Toni Morrison

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Beloved, Toni Morrison, Plume, 1998 (c1987), ISBN 0-452-28062-1, $12.95, 275pp.

A powerful book that resembles putting a puzzle together much more so than many so-called mysteries–you get a glimpse of the completed puzzle early on in the novel, as if you were peeking at the box top before dumping the pieces on the table, then you promptly forget it as you painstakingly examine each piece to try and put it in its proper place. Some pieces you have to pick up and put down again because you don’t have enough of the puzzle created to understand where they go. And some pieces you just stare at endlessly, caught up in the vision of this small part of the picture that you might have ignored had you the whole thing in front of you. It is not a new way to write a novel, but Morrison’s subject is aptly suited for such treatment.

The subject, in case you have not followed some of the literature on this critically acclaimed novel and missed the movie, is slavery and its aftermath. Morrison’s goal is the reconstruction of a slave narrative through the form of a novel. While I think that Morrison succeeds in this goal, I found that the novel was not quite as affecting as it could have been, mainly because it is set in 1873 and earlier. The effect of slavery in the U.S. is still with us today and, while Morrison recreates the past, it seems all too simple to dismiss it as the sins of our grandfathers.

To return to the method used in the telling, which I was much more impressed by, Morrison’s events benefit from the slow uncovering of the facts. Supposedly, the novel grew from a newspaper clipping that Morrison ran across (and the same, I’m guessing, that provides the climax of Part One). The clipping, as mentioned by the characters, was likely intended for the titillation and scandal of the white people who were its likely audience. By recasting the story in the manner which she does, Morrison saves it from its sensationalism and reveals it as the tragedy–for all involved–that it truly was.

Finally, regarding the supernatural elements, I have to agree with the critics that link this novel to the tradition of South American magical realism. Why? Basically because the characters treat the fantastic only as another part of life–rather than questioning its existence, they embrace it or deal with it. Their attitude towards it is active. I’m somewhat interested in Morrison’s other work, especially something set in the present, to see if this approach to fantasy is contained therein as well.

[Finished April 1999]

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