Updated on August 5, 2015
10. ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison
“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
Slavery. If anyone can tackle the subject, it would seem Toni Morrison can. For me, there are a few subjects so enormous that it is virtually impossible to comprehend them at all, let alone write about them well. Slavery is one, the Holocaust another. Which is why, I suppose, writers must focus on the small, the individual, because the entirety is utterly overwhelming.
This is a book of fragments, and the plot leaps forwards and backwards through time. The reader becomes part of the unravelling complexity, according to the details they remember. It’s a compelling – if occasionally confusing – technique. You are lured in by references to the things that happened at Sweet Home – the characters talk to each other about things the reader is as yet unaware of – and so you have no choice but to read on. (Tip: don’t read the blurb. In the version I read it reveals a major part of the story. It doesn’t ruin it, but probably takes some of the shock away.)
I absolutely love magical realism, and I was not expecting it from this book. So I was very pleasantly surprised when the murdered child, Beloved, walked out of the water and arrived on her mother’s doorstep.
It is introduced gradually – from the brilliant warning Sethe gives her living daughter, Denver, that you can walk down the street and bump into somebody else’s memories – so that when the real magic happens it is easier to accept. I found the style reminiscent of one my favourite writers, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, although I prefer Márquez for the extent to which he sustains and interweaves his magical realism throughout whole novels.
There are some brilliant ideas in this novel: after trauma Sethe ceases to see and remember colours; time drips and runs; the characters must only love small things, like distant stars, because to invest love in a partner or child will only tear them apart when the loved one is inevitably lost or destroyed. Towards the end there are several more experimental chapters – written from Sethe, Denver and Beloved’s perspectives – which are well done but break the flow a little. The ending (Sethe with the ice pick) had my heart racing, and some of the informal, conversational prose is just incredible.
“She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
Shortly after reading ‘Song of Solomon’ quite a few years ago, I bought ‘Beloved’, and it has sat, unread, on my shelves ever since. A friend mentioned it to me recently, so I rooted it out and, at last, read it in just a few days.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?