Sunday, May 19, 2019

the last book I read

Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Sethe has had a tough life, as pretty much anyone in her circumstances - poor, black, female - would have done in the United States of the 1850s. Born into poverty and slavery, part of a large group of slaves, including her husband Halle, employed (if that's the word) at the Sweet Home plantation under relatively enlightened conditions, all things considered, but, y'know, still slavery.

After a time the benign old geezer responsible for this relatively lax regime dies and the new regime is considerably more savage, whereupon Sethe decides that it's time to make a bid for freedom. Sending her three children out ahead of her, they find refuge in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati with Halle's mother, Baby Suggs (no relation). Sethe, by now pregnant with her fourth child, later escapes herself (though without Halle) and makes her way by a circuitous and eventful route (including giving birth on the way, so yeah, eventful) to the house in Cincinnati to be reunited with Baby Suggs and the kids.

Happy ever after, right? Well, not exactly - Sethe's owners aren't too happy about Sethe's scarpering, still less her arranging for the scarpering of her kids, who would otherwise have been ready-made (and free) slave material themselves in due course, so they send a posse out to get her back. Sethe is not going back, though, and nor are the kids, even if she has to ensure their continuing freedom by, erm, sending them to a better place. So when the posse comes a-callin' to Baby Suggs' place Sethe takes the kids out to the shed and begins calmly slaughtering them. She is interrupted before she can get too far but does manage to dispatch her two-year-old daughter, Beloved, by slitting her throat.

On her release from prison Sethe finds that the slave-owners have cooled off considerably on the idea of having her crazy ass back, so she is free. A few problems remain, though, not least that the house now seems to be haunted by the unquiet spirit of what everyone (Sethe, Baby Suggs, Sethe's now-teenage daughter Denver) assumes is Beloved. It's only when Paul D, an old friend of Sethe from Sweet Home, turns up and performs a sort of impromptu exorcism (and then moves in) that calm is restored.

Not for long, though - on their return from an excursion the family discover a mysterious young woman sitting outside the house, who claims to be called.....Beloved. She also moves in and begins a strange relationship with Sethe and Denver, and a fractious but sexual one with Paul D which eventually results in him moving out of the house. Is she the returned (and possibly vengeful) spirit of Sethe's murdered daughter? Can Denver do anything to snap Sethe out of the spell that Beloved seems to have her under and return her to the world of the living?

The preceding few paragraphs provide a broadly linear and chronological sequence of the events described in Beloved. They are not presented that way in the book, though - the opening chapters take place around the time of Paul D's arrival on the scene and the preceding events are then filled in in a series of flashbacks. To an extent this mirrors Paul D's increasing understanding of Sethe's story, since he is unaware of her murderous past when he arrives at the house. There is also an interlude of brief stream-of-consciousness chapters from a series of shifting viewpoints (Sethe, Denver, Beloved) before the novel shifts back to the more regular third-person viewpoint.

What the general arc of the story is about is clear enough - the horrific atrocities visited by white people on black people during the formative years of the United States of America, the ways in which people find ways to retain some semblance of humanity even in the face of people who wish to strip it from them, the untameable force of the bond between parent and child, even when expressed in what seem like the most savagely irrational and destructive ways. What the purpose of the very specific supernatural sub-plot is is slightly less clear to me - clearly we are meant to conclude that Beloved was the ghost of Sethe's murdered child, but the purpose of her return is unclear - most likely to enact some form of retribution, but since she never quite gets to enact it it's not certain.

I confess (and I'm aware that this is me being a tedious hyper-rationalist) that the insertion of the supernatural stuff into an otherwise brutally realistic narrative bothered me slightly. I'm not sure it really added anything other than being a plot MacGuffin that acts as the catalyst for some revelations and spurs Denver on to her climactic actions at the end of the book. It's a testament to the power of the rest of the book that this minor botheration doesn't detract too much from it.

There is precious little apart from the two Toni Morrison books in this list that would qualify as "black American literature" (Chester Himes is perhaps the only other author who would qualify), which is an omission I feel slightly uncomfortable about. Morrison herself is clear about her membership of this group and in this interview administers a polite but steely-eyed and merciless curbstomping to an interviewer who has the temerity to ask: yeah, but when are you going to write a book about white people?

Beloved is the novel for which Toni Morrison is most famous and which is generally perceived to have been the one which won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (although that is, at least in theory, awarded for a body of work). It won the Pulitzer Prize and The American Book Award in 1988 - previous Pulitzer winners on this list are Independence Day, The Road, A Thousand Acres, Foreign Affairs, The Bridge Of San Luis Rey and Gilead. Nonetheless I think I probably enjoyed Paradise marginally more (Tar Baby is the only other novel of hers I've read, which is also very good), but this is a seminal work of late-20th-century American literature and you should read it. Beloved was made into a film in 1998, starring Oprah Winfrey (as Sethe), Danny Glover and Thandie Newton.