Toni Morrison: Beloved (review)

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‘Nothing was in that shed, he knew, having been there early that morning. Nothing but sunlight. Sunlight, shavings, a shovel. The ax he himself took out. Nothing else was in there except the shovel – and of course the saw.’ (p. 185)

Even though Sethe has lived eighteen years in freedom, she is still haunted by her past. She is haunted by what happened on the farm where she was a slave, what happened with her children, what happened to her husband and her fellow slaves at Sweet Home. And most of all, she is haunted by the ghost of her baby girl, the dead baby who is living in the house with Sethe and her daughter Denver. The dead baby on whose grave only one word is written: Beloved.

After reading this novel, I had a conversation with my boyfriend about whether any of us could ever seriously hurt or even kill our daughters to prevent them from suffering a worse fate. It’s difficult to imagine a situation where we would have to make that choice – and even if it ever happened, I think we would both always hope that something would happen that would save them and that by killing them, we would take away any chance, however remote, of them ever leading a happy life.

Not so for Sethe. After living in slavery for years and finally escaping with her baby, after having sent her three oldest children to safety earlier, she will do anything to ensure that none of her children will ever have to suffer through what she suffered as a slave – even though she had it easy for much of that time. But of course, that’s not the point. What is the point is that when you are a slave, someone else is so much in charge of you that they can take everything from you, not just the few possessions you have or your family, but yourself too. ‘That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.’ (p. 295). And as a mother, you can’t let that happen to your children, can you? So instead, you choose safety by handsaw… and you protect your children best way you can. Even if it’s a gruesome way.

So what makes this book such an outstanding novel is not the story itself even though it is inspired by real events. It’s not the characters even though they stand out from the pages. It’s the writing. The way Morrison uses words is the true star of this book and the skillful way she tells much, but not all. You are not always sure what’s going on, sometimes you have to go back and reread a passage several times, but it’s always devastatingly beautiful. You have to use your imagination to piece it all together – and somehow, that makes it worse. The narrative is not told in a straight and linear way, you jump back and forth as Sethe remembers more and more of what she has hidden away but which the arrival of another slave from Sweet Home awakens in her again. I was confused several times while reading this book and then, towards the end, when she uses different POVs, different voices and even wrote parts in prose poem style, I was even more confused. But it’s a good confusion. It’s the kind of confusion that shows you that there is something here that’s worth coming back for, that you need to read carefully and concentrated and definitely more than once.

Toni Morrison is a Pulitzer winner and a Nobel Prize recipient – and rightly so, if I am to judge by this book. If the rest of her books live up to this standard, I’m impressed! I am not sure if she will become a new favorite author because I think her books might be too devastating – on the other hand, it was such a joy to read a book where an author was so much in command of her abilities and everything was just right. This is a novel you just have to read – there’s no way around it.

Beloved

You are my sister

You are my daughter

You are my face; you are me

I have you found you again; you have come back to me

You are my Beloved

You are mine

You are mine

You are mine (p. 255-256)

  • Title: Beloved
  • Author: Toni Morrison
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1987
  • Pages: 324 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

3 thoughts on “Toni Morrison: Beloved (review)

  1. I have a hard time reading Morrison’s books. I can’t find the rhythm in them. BUT, if I listen to them on audio, especially if they are read by her, I adore them. I read this one a long time ago and didn’t think much of it. Shhh! But, it was way before blogging and I think I would enjoy it more now that I have kids of my own.

    The discussion you had about taking the life of your own child to save them. Wow. I guess it’s the ultimate sacrifice if you know for sure the alternative is a life of misery and pain.

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