Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: A Mercy, by Toni Morrison

I finished A Mercy a few weeks ago, but haven't been able to corral my thoughts about the book until now. This is the first of Toni Morrison's books that I've read since Beloved, a book I was mesmerized by as a younger woman. And I'm glad I read this, which feels somewhat like a companion piece to Beloved, to reintroduce myself to Morrison's work after some years.

A Mercy takes place at the end of the 17th century, when America was a very wild and new place. It is the story of a household, a farm, on the edge of the wilderness in the New World. Jacob Vaark is the farmer, but it is less his story than that of the women who reside with him.

First there is Lina, a young Native American woman Jacob brings into his home to help him with the house and farmwork. Lina was the sole survivor of her village's massacre, and then survived the Protestant proselytizing of the stern white folks who first took her in.

Then Jacob buys a bride from England, and Rebekka shows up. She is happy to exchange the squalor of English city life and her valueless place as daughter of the family for the hard work of a New England farm, and the relative autonomy of being a wife. Rebekka and Lina achieve a mutual respect and good working relationship on the farm, but Rebekka's life is scarred by the loss of several children.

Jacob also takes in a young woman named Sorrow, who was raised on a ship and rescued from it when all others aboard had perished. Sorrow is an enigmatic character who seems to live inside her own head and carry untold secrets. Finally, Jacob reluctantly accepts slave girl Florens in payment for a debt from a slave trader.

When Jacob dies of smallpox, the four women's lives become insecure, as women alone in this harsh new world are never fully safe. And when Rebekka sickens with the disease, Florens takes to the road to find help in the form of a free black man, an artisan who worked for Jacob, and who may be able to cure Rebekka. This man also happens to be Florens's lover, and she goes to him with hope in her heart for a new and different life.

Like Beloved, A Mercy examines the psychological and moral intricacies of slavery. While Beloved takes place in the aftermath of slavery, A Mercy is there at slavery's birth in this country. A Mercy's characters demonstrate the more fluid state of slavery at that time, as the novel depicts slave traders, a reluctant slave owner, a free black man, and people of every color in various states of servitude, including a pair of white male indentured servants who almost (but perhaps not quite) provide the novel with comic relief. The subtlety of their relationships is brilliant; nobody is wholly innocent or wholly guilty, power can shift, and all are slaves to something.

The women in the story not only represent different races and social positions, they also represent the many different points on the spectrum of womanhood at the time: mother, sister, daughter, mistress, servant, slave, lover, wife, friend. And Morrison digs into the subtleties of all these relationships, showing their fluidity, too.

Morrison, whom I consider a magician with words, writes gorgeous, elliptical, poetic prose that evokes a waking dream. I enter the characters' consciousnesses, and end up in my own dream-like state as I read. It is easy to be swept up in Morrison's writing. The plot is non-linear, and the writing is impressionistic, but, maybe through Morrison's magic, or maybe just because the human brain works this way, the non-linear bits and pieces of the story and all of the impressions I've gathered coalesce into a whole that I see with more clarity than I ever expected.


litlove said...

Wonderful review! I must confess to never having read a Toni Morrison novel - that's not good, is it? Perhaps I should start with this one.

Leah said...

Excellent review! I loved Beloved and Song of Solomon. This one has gone on the wishlist too. Thanks for the recommendation.

Amy Reads Good Books said...

Great review! I agree with your thoughts on Morrison completely!

verbivore said...

Last week Toni Morrison was signing books at my local bookstore in Lausanne, kind of a once-in-a-million chance to see her in person. So I went and bought A Mercy and she signed it along with my battered copy of her first novel - The Bluest Eye. I've been looking forward to reading A Mercy since I brought it home.

Great review, by the way, I can't wait to see what I think of the book myself.

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--Morrison is definitely worth reading, and I'd love to hear what you think of this book! I haven't read all of her work, so I'm not necessarily the best person to recommend something to start with, but again, I'd love to hear what you make of her writing :)

Leah--I've been meaning to read Song of Solomon for years and years, and now I'm motivated by reading this--so it's higher up my list :)

Any--thanks, and isn't Morrison such an interesting stylist? I don't know anyone else like her!

verbivore--as the kids say, OMG! How great that you got to meet her and have her sign your books. I'm really interested to hear what you think of A Mercy. It's a really short book, but so chock full of stuff--it left me with a lot to think about :)

Dorothy W. said...

This book sounds really great -- I like the idea of it as a companion to Beloved, and I think it would be interesting to read about slavery early in the country's history. The fluidity you describe sounds really fascinating.

Booklogged said...

I have good news - you won a copy of "Bound" over at my blog. Congratulations! If you will just email me your address I'll see that your book gets on its way.

booklogged AT gmail DOT com

I need to read Morrison again. I've only read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Gentle Reader said...

Booklogged--Wow, really, I won? I will email you asap. Thanks so much!

Stefanie said...

Thanks for such a well written review! I have been wondering about the book and you have satisfied my curiosity. It's going on the TBR pile!

Gentle Reader said...

Stefanie--thanks! I'm glad I could help you add to your TBR pile (I think!) :)

Matt said...

That this book takes place at the birth slavery would mean a more intense portrait of the practice. I would have to bump this book up my pile. I also plan to reread my notes for beloved along with this book. I savor Morrison's non-linear plot and the way how she "snaps" in and out of magical realism.

Literary Feline said...

Toni Morrison certainly has a gift when it comes to writing. I haven't yet read this book nor Beloved, but I have read two of her other books, both of which I enjoyed. They were both complicated, tragic, and beautiful--at least language wise.

Gentle Reader said...

Matt--I wish I'd known the parallels between this book and Beloved before I started, so I could have either re-read Beloved first, or at least looked at some analysis of it. Good idea!

Wendy--I agree, I think Morrison's use of language is just magical--and I plan to read more of her work!