Sunday, July 18, 2010

the last book I read

Paradise by Toni Morrison.
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.
After that bracing in medias res opening we step back in time to answer the obvious who? where? why? questions: we are on the outskirts of Ruby, a town in Oklahoma founded by a group of black settlers in the 1950s (and with real-life forbears such as Langston, Oklahoma and Eatonville, Florida). Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, they have made a prosperous life for themselves and resent and reject any contact with outsiders, particularly white outsiders.

So far, so peachy: but absenting themselves from the obvious black/white racial conflict only allows other conflicts to come to the surface - rigid patriarchal control and sexism, corrosive and inflexible religiosity and a generational conflict with the young people of the town who want to engage with the race struggle in a more militant way, particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 (the main action in the book occurs in the mid-1970s). There is also a more subtle social hierarchy at work, with those members of the small group of families who founded the town at the top, and a racial one too, based on subtle gradations of skin colour, with the "pure" blue-black negroes at the top and the coffee-coloured negroes at the bottom, tainted by unspoken suspicion of racial miscegenation (a sort of reverse one-drop rule).

Beyond the outskirts of Ruby sits the Convent, an old delapidated building occupied by a steadily-growing assortment of women, most of them refugees from some domestic disaster or other. We get a chapter loosely devoted to each of them: downtrodden Mavis, fleeing an abusive husband and the death of her twin children in New Jersey, matriarchal Connie, scarred by a doomed relationship with one of the town elders and taking refuge in the Convent's extensive wine cellar, shameless Gigi who sunbathes naked in the Convent grounds and has an unwise relationship with K.D., one of the young scions of a prominent Ruby family, and younger girls Seneca and Pallas.

The contrast between the chaotic life of the Convent women and the rigid constraints of town life are marked, and since there has to be some interaction between the two (the Convent women have to come into town for supplies, and the Convent owns some of the land which the Ruby residents farm) the chafing against the ordered social hierarchy and rules of Ruby becomes too much to bear. Rumours abound of strange goings on up at the Convent: witchcraft, abortions, kidnappings. Add these to the very real past indiscretions that some of the town elders would rather not have become public knowledge and you have a boil that eventually has to be lanced, which brings us back to where we came in.

I read Morrison's earlier novel Tar Baby a few years back, which also had interesting things to say about race and class and politics, but said them in a fairly linear and easy-to-follow way. Paradise, published in 1998, and Morrison's first published novel following her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, is a different kettle of fish altogether; brutally stripped of anything resembling clear exposition, you're obliged to glean bits of history from conversations between people who already know all this background stuff and so don't need to mention it explicitly. Add to that the regular changes of viewpoint between chapters and the fractured timeline and it's a book that makes serious demands of the reader's ability to keep up and fill in the blanks. It's all done for a reason, though, for example when you get to the end of the book and the violent events of the opening chapter are replayed, you realise that you've spent most of a book in the company of the Convent women without ever being quite sure which one "the white girl" is. Clever.

So, to recap #1: it's dense and knotty stuff, but I enjoyed it very much. You need to keep your wits about you, though. To recap #2: they called it paradise, I don't know why; call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.

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