“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
Slavery. If anyone can tackle the subject, it would seem Toni Morrison can. For me, there are a few subjects so enormous that it is virtually impossible to comprehend them at all, let alone write about them well. Slavery is one, the Holocaust another. Which is why, I suppose, writers must focus on the small, the individual, because the entirety is utterly overwhelming.
This is a book of fragments, and the plot leaps forwards and backwards through time. The reader becomes part of the unravelling complexity, according to the details they remember. It’s a compelling – if occasionally confusing – technique. You are lured in by references to the things that happened at Sweet Home – the characters talk to each other about things the reader is as yet unaware of – and so you have no choice but to read on. (Tip: don’t read the blurb. In the version I read it reveals a major part of the story. It doesn’t ruin it, but probably takes some of the shock away.)
I absolutely love magical realism, and I was not expecting it from this book. So I was very pleasantly surprised when the murdered child, Beloved, walked out of the water and arrived on her mother’s doorstep.
It is introduced gradually – from the brilliant warning Sethe gives her living daughter, Denver, that you can walk down the street and bump into somebody else’s memories – so that when the real magic happens it is easier to accept. I found the style reminiscent of one my favourite writers, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, although I prefer Márquez for the extent to which he sustains and interweaves his magical realism throughout whole novels.
There are some brilliant ideas in this novel: after trauma Sethe ceases to see and remember colours; time drips and runs; the characters must only love small things, like distant stars, because to invest love in a partner or child will only tear them apart when the loved one is inevitably lost or destroyed. Towards the end there are several more experimental chapters – written from Sethe, Denver and Beloved’s perspectives – which are well done but break the flow a little. The ending (Sethe with the ice pick) had my heart racing, and some of the informal, conversational prose is just incredible.
“She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
Shortly after reading ‘Song of Solomon’ quite a few years ago, I bought ‘Beloved’, and it has sat, unread, on my shelves ever since. A friend mentioned it to me recently, so I rooted it out and, at last, read it in just a few days.
– gildius –