A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Brilliant.

Toni Morrison February 18 Black History MonthA little way into reading, I had to pause and go back to the beginning, because this story is told not in a linear way, but in a spiral and with multiple perspectives that to me didn’t relate to what the blurb says this book is about.

Florens is the only voice we hear more than once as she sets out on her quest, her chapters are interspersed by those she is growing up around, each one of those is told in the third person, but for their chapter stays with their perspective and views the others. And the last chapter circles back to the beginning and is given to the mother.

The novel begins with Florens beginning to tell us her story/confession and her telling of it will also be the second to last chapter, where she thinks of her mother and what she wishes her to know. We learn of the  plantation where she lived with her mother and younger brother and the accompanied journey she made to her new owner Jacob, given to him in payment for a debt.

It is around 1690, at a time when anyone, of any colour, race or creed could be rented, sold or traded.

The beginning begins with the shoes. When I was a child I was never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes,even on the hottest days. My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettifying ways.

We meet the other women living on Jacob’s farm, how he has “acquired” them, who he is and why he lives the way he does. And the blacksmith, a free man, the turning point of the novel.

To tell any more would be a disservice, for it is a novel to discover, letting it reveal its layers to you.

Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of a clan. Baptists, Presbyterians, tribe, army, family, some encircling outside thing was needed. Pride, she thought. Pride alone made them think that they needed only themselves, could shape life that way, like Adam and Eve, like gods from nowhere beholden to nothing except their own creations. She should have warned them, but her devotion cautioned against impertinence. As long as Sir was alive it was easy to veil the truth: that they were not a family-not even a like-minded group. They were orphans, each and all.

The Spiralling Narrative

Without looking at the structure, and trying to understand the author’s intention by it, I can see why one might struggle with this, I went back and reread the first chapter countless times as I read forward, because it reveals so much that is understood as we progress. I benefited so much from each time I circled back and reread that beginning. And felt the excitement of realising what Morrison was doing. A lyrical revelation.

The man Jacob gets one chapter, but the first person narrator is the little girl Florens who we see at eight years and at sixteen years and we only understand why, when we read the very last voice, that of her mother, and whose intention it was, who spotted that opportunity, A Mercy. The story is seen from these different angles, perspectives, narrative voices circling the oblivious character.

Just wow.

Ombu Trees Argentina

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

A simple telling of a complex novel in the hands of one of the greats.

To use my own symbolism, which at the end I draw in the back of the book, to capture it immediately it comes to mind, it’s like learning about how trees live in communities and support each other.

There is what you see above ground, what lies below that connects them, and then there is the environment in which they grow, are nurtured, or might wither. And the small mercies.

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.

 

Further Reading

Short Video (3 mins) Toni Morrison on her character Florens in ‘A Mercy’

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni MorrisonBride is young, in her twenties, but has learned early the importance of a word, a gesture, a look that can change people’s perception of you, as long as you stick to it, you become known for it, unforgettable, and that one thing can change your world.

God Help the Child is mostly told through the life experience of Bride, a name she chose for herself as she launched herself into a successful and glamorous career in the perfume/fashion world.

It is far from the memory of neglect and disapproval that was her constant companion throughout childhood, channeled through the eyes, words and gestures of a mother unable to move beyond the disappointment of the blue/black tone of her daughter’s skin.

‘I told her to call me “Sweetness” instead of “Mother” or “Mama”. It was safer. Being that black and having what I think are too-thick lips calling me “Mama” would confuse people. Besides, she has funny-coloured eyes, crow-black with a blue tint, something witchy about them too.’

Before her second interview for the job she covets, she consults a designer called Jeri, who convinces her to only ever wear white, accentuating both her new name and because of the effect it had on what he described as her licorice skin.

‘At first it was boring shopping for white-only clothes until I learned how many shades of white there were: ivory, oyster, alabaster, paper white, snow, cream, ecru, Champagne, ghost, bone.’

Bride waits in a prison parking lot for a convicted felon to emerge on the last day of their sentence. She comes with a gift and a different form of naivety than that she possessed when her testimony put this person away for 20 long years.

Her current boyfriend Booker has just left her, and now this. She excels in acquiring knowledge to help her scale the ladder of success, but there is a gaping hole within that pushes her to put all else aside and find answers to questions she can barely articulate to herself.

On a whim, she tries to track down the man who disappeared without a goodbye and after a car accident and injury, finds herself living with a couple and a girl in self-imposed poverty; a stark contrast to her lifestyle. As she pursues those unclear questions, strange but noticeable things begin to happen to her body, as if it is regressing towards childhood.

Each subsequent part tells of an encounter of someone she meets or has met previously and although their stories differ there is a common thread that ties them all and demonstrates in various ways the effect these childhood experiences have on a person subsequently, how they shape who we become, how we react to things, how they affect one’s perception.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The characters enthrall, each one introduced fleetingly, intriguing and hinting at the depths that their own stories have led them to become. Morrison makes us wait and slowly reveals those experiences for the select few deemed important to the narrative. It is perhaps through this hinting at and omission, that much is left to the reader to contemplate, but then Morrison isn’t known for having to spell it all out or writing sagas, and there is enough divulged to create a balance and equal contribution between the four parts of the novel.

It is a thought-provoking, evocative novel that deserves more than one reading, demonstrating the ease with which Toni Morrison and her narrative skill are able to skate into the 21st century, to pick up and explore the nuances of another of society’s dysfunctional aspects, that the things you do and say to children in their early years really matter and will impact their adult perceptions, actions and relationships. However, there are moments, that if grasped, can and do lead one out of that.

Brilliantly told, subtle and yet powerful, Morrison’s final words at the end of the book, reminded me of the closing words of Maya Angelou in an interview she gave to the BBC near the end of her life, after a lifetime of addressing issues that manifest throughout life, her final words too, speak of children.

“Exercise patience with yourself first, so you can forgive yourself for all the dumb things you do. Then exercise patience with your children.” Maya Angelou

Sula, Toni Morrison

SulaA farmer promises freedom and a piece of land referred to as Bottom, to his slave if he performs some difficult chores. The town of Medallion grows up around the farmland, looking down on the valley where the more fertile land and the white folks live.

The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, ‘Oh no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.

‘But it’s high up in the hills,’ said the slave.

‘High up from us,’ said the master, but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven, the best land there is.’

It’s the town where Sula and Nel grow up in the 1920’s. Both are only children, Nel raised in her mother’s quiet, orderly neat home that oppresses her and keeps her protected and Sula in the home of her infamous grandmother Eva Pearce, a woman who hasn’t come downstairs in years and may or may not have done despicable things before she became one-legged and runs a kind of boarding house for vagrants.

“a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with thins, people, voices and the slamming of doors”

In childhood, the two girls differences are insignificant, they revel in each other’s company, they test the boundaries of their community and environment, they experience joy and witness horror. They bury the past until it returns to haunt them in adulthood, when they can no longer avoid who they were always destined to be, thanks to the judgments and perceptions of others and the behaviours of those who went before them. And themselves.

“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”

The book is separated into two parts, the early 1920’s during the girls childhood and the late 30’s, early 40’s when Sula returns and creates a disturbing ripple throughout the small community, no longer used to her carefree ways, having forgotten the inclinations of the female characters she was spawned from. She becomes estranged from them all. Except one.

It is about the innocence and bonds of childhood, secrets between friends, the inclination to follow the well-trodden path of those who have gone before, despite the desire for freedom and individuality and the reluctance of others to see them any differently.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Her books are almost always the perfect size of a novella and every one of Toni Morrison’s stories I have read brings so much more than the sum of its pages to the reader in terms of things to consider, long after the last page is turned.

Her language is poetic, her characters resplendent with their flaws, they speak for the one and the many and show us ourselves, the parts we hide from view, that which is judged from outside and the inclination to judge without knowing.