Monday, May 4, 2009

A Mercy book review

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

OK, I was going to try and write book reviews as soon as I finished a book but that hasn’t happened. Oh well, what do you do? I finished this book a few weeks ago, so hopefully I get the details right.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a “literary” novel so I decided to look for something that both fit that description and was short. I don’t have as much time to read these days, so I didn’t want to get into something really long even though I love long books that you can really get into if they’re well written.

I had seen many good reviews of A Mercy and my library had a copy available so I checked it out. I’ve never read anything by Toni Morrison. If I have my facts straight, she’s the only living American writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her latest book is set in North America in the late 17th century before slavery became an institution. In this colonial time, both white and black persons could become slaves or indentured servants. Morrison explores themes of racism and bigotry, not just towards blacks, but towards women and Native Americans. There’s nothing new here about those themes, but it is extremely well written. The basic plot is about a Dutch man who runs a farm in colonial America and acquires a sixteen year old black girl as a slave when her mother offers to give her daughter up rather than be taken herself. The girl lives on the farm with the man’s European mail-order bride, a Native American woman and some indentured hired hands. What happens to the girl forms the crux of the story, which is told through various points-of-view and not in a straight-forward linear fashion.

I read lots of negative reviews on Amazon and the main reason most people seemed to dislike the novel is because they couldn’t follow it. Some even gave up after the first chapter. While I grant it’s not easy to follow, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I couldn’t understand the first chapter either but I assumed (correctly, I think) that the perplexity of the prose was deliberate and that things would eventually become clear, which they did. Thanks to the obscure writing style there were plenty of “a-ha” moments as elements of the plot were gradually revealed. Many scenes were vividly realized and would make for great movie scenes except that I can’t imagine anyone turning this into a movie. The pleasure in the novel is in the various elements of the plot coming together at different times and seen through the eyes of multiple characters. It wouldn’t work if the story were told in chronological order.

My only complaint is Morrison’s treatment of Christians. She rightly notes that there were differences between Protestants and Catholics at that time, especially since the Protestant Reformation was much closer to the time of this story than it is today, but neither group comes across well. Most of the Christian characters are unnamed and tend to be representative of the group as a whole, (“the Baptists” or “the Presbyterians“). These characters are bigoted and unkind to the main characters in the story. Still, that’s not a huge distraction and overall I really liked A Mercy. I’ll have to read Beloved, Ms. Morrison’s best known work, someday.

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