african american literature, beloved, infanticide, literary fiction, love story, Sethe, Slavery, toni morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of every day life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must first get out of the way.”
This is Morrison describing why and how she went about writing ‘Beloved‘. When I first came to read the novel, I noticed a very uncomfortable gap, or rather ‘jarring’ between what Morrison was trying to say and what she ended up saying. Nothing was straight forward, even the first opening sentence felt as if it had been dragged out backwards from the psyche. The ‘slave experience’ that she mentions, and the claustrophobic memory of the dead that continually pervades the living is the catalyst Morrison uses to break down the hindering effect of language.
As a novel of extremities, ‘Beloved’ explores the limitless depths of love and hate, showing the places where they intermingle and become almost interchangeable. This is much more than just a ghost story, much more than the angry, persistent haunting of a mother who loved her baby so much, she had to choose between the better of two evils. The haunting is one that clings to the skirts of an entire race. I have often heard people say how disconcerting Morrison’s prose is apt to be, and how many have turned away from this fine novel with confusion, misunderstanding or even sheer disgust. I implore that they look again, for their own good.
Personally, after much wrestling with the novel, I have found that this disjointedness provides the perfect rhythm to a story about a people whose hearts are scarred by the unspeakable. This is not just about slavery, the evils of that practice nor how people escaped. It’s about what happens after; how a person goes about mourning for ones own wasted life, but also for those that came before them and those that might come after.
“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”
Because it is only after, when fate or a change in ones’ circumstance allows a moment of reflection, that the sting of the whip begins to reverberate in the soul.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
Every character in this novel has their own tragedies. Even though Sethe is the main character and her infanticide the focal point on the novel, there are other more gruesome events. I can sympathise with Sethe, because Morrison boldly takes the reader down a very dark path to her particular reasoning. It is not something I could personally achieve on my own, but thanks to characters like Ella and Baby Suggs, I felt I could access the delirious logic of a woman on the edge of reason.
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
This is not an easy book, it is hard to read and harder to understand. It works on many levels and tackles a lot of very thorny issues. Not for the faint-hearted nor the narrow-minded. It’s a mental workout which leaves you drained at the end. I’ll not be re-reading it for a while, because I feel this one will be staying in my mind for a long time. However I am glad I read it, because no literary work I have read thus far has ever looked at slavery as boldly as ‘Beloved’.
If you like your novels to have a bold streak in them, then ‘Beloved’ is for you.
- Top 10 books I read in 2012: A Mercy (#10) (abbyfp.wordpress.com)
- Yes, I Still Love Toni Morrison. (musingsfrommymacbook.wordpress.com)
- Book Review | ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (mywordlyobsessions.wordpress.com)
- Did I Mention I Love Toni Morrison? (musingsfrommymacbook.wordpress.com)
- Tony Morrisson: Good, but never simple (echoculture.org)