Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Beloved by Toni Morrison

When I saw Beloved by Toni Morrison in our little free library at work, I knew it COULD be the book to bust my slump. That might sound odd, since Morrison's work is known to be quite dense and challenging, but that's what I was craving...something heftier than the "sea of threes" I've been stuck in lately.

Morrison delivered with this book. Technically, it was a re-read. I picked it up for the first time in 1998 or so. I was a high school junior looking for a good ghost story, but this is much more a novel about being haunted than a book about a ghost. 

In the troubled years following the Civil War, the spirit of a murdered child haunts the Ohio home of a former slave. This angry, destructive ghost breaks mirrors, leaves its fingerprints in cake icing, and generally makes life difficult for Sethe and her family; nevertheless, the woman finds the haunting oddly comforting for the spirit is that of her own dead baby, never named, thought of only as Beloved. A dead child, a runaway slave, a terrible secret--these are the central concerns of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved (from Goodreads).

At the beginning of the book, Sethe and her daughter, Denver, are navigating life alone. Sethe works in a local restaurant and Denver is lonely, kept company mostly by the spirit. Soon, one of Sethe's fellow slaves from the plantation, Sweet Home, shows up on her doorstep. Paul D, like all of the slaves, has had a rough time...first within slavery itself and then as a runaway and prisoner. He's a drifter, continually running from the past. 

All of the characters in Beloved, contend heavily with the past. They run from it, shy away from the memories, or try too hard to atone for the detriment of their loved ones. The idea of the spirit in Sethe's house is such a massive metaphor. So touching, terrible, and raw. 

Morrison's writing is difficult to grasp at times. She likes to plop the reader down in a situation, knowing very little, and let us wriggle and struggle a bit as the truth unfolds. I was totally fine with that, since the wriggling and struggling was worthwhile. Beautiful, terrible words. A lovely, terrifying story. Lines like this one...
It wasn't blacks who brought the jungle within them. It was the white folks who put it there, and it grew until it overtook them. 
That's a slight paraphrase since I don't have the book with me. I noted it as I was reading the book, and then it came up again when I had an impromptu literature discussion with a friend of mine from graduate school on Facebook. 

There were times Beloved turned my stomach with its scenes are barbarism, and there were times it made my feelings soar. The writing was just amazing, and the overall plotting was excellent. I already loved Morrison for The Bluest Eye, but I'm glad I gave this book another go at a different time in life when I could appreciate it more. I'll definitely be reading it again in the future. 

Pub. Date: 1987
Publisher: Plume/Penguin
Format: Trade Paperback
ISBN: 0452264464
Source: Borrowed!

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