Poetic and heart-breaking. Those are the first words that come to mind when I think about Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved. I only finished reading it yesterday, maybe I should wait a little before trying to write down my thoughts about it but I just feel the need to talk about this novel now, so here we go.
Sethe was born a slave and escaped the farm she worked on with her three young children and a fourth one on the way. Yet, eighteen years later, she is still not truly free - “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” She is stuck between the memories she does not dare to forget, memories from the (cynically named) Sweet Home farm, and memories of what happened 28 days after she reached freedom. She is stuck, also, in her house, haunted by the angry ghost of her baby daughter, whose tombstone only bears a single word: Beloved. More, Sethe could not afford. The ghosts around her home make it impossible for her and her remaining daughter Denver to leave the past behind. The two women live in isolation until Paul D, a man from Sethe’s past, gives her hope at a new life. But the appearance of a mysterious girl, claiming to be without a past and calling herself Beloved eliminates any hope of a new future and anchors the inhabitants of 124 Bluestone Road firmly in the past.
“It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world.”
Between memories, stories, past and present the story circles around two events: the death of Sethe’s daughter and her escape from slavery. The narrative is carefully, masterfully constructed and full of individual stories, introducing authentic characters with all their vices and virtues. Some of these stories warm your heart, others break it. Some are tragic, some gruesome, others joyous and bursting with love. None are easy, because the topic is not easy. Beloved tells us about the horrific cruelties committed against humanity by those claiming humanity. This is a novel about murder, love, ghosts, guilt and shame, but mostly it is about the incurable wounds slavery inflicts on human bodies and human minds. Slavery is the scariest spectres haunting these pages. But Morrison’s story is also the tale of incredible resilience and the strength of people haunted by their past.
“Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all.”
Toni Morrison marries magical realism with the unavoidable, undeniable truth of history. And truth itself becomes a key theme in this work. The point of view shifts between and sometimes within chapters, offering the reader different perspectives on the same scene and thereby creating the effect of slowly circling in on the truth of events. This approach raises the question whether there is an ultimate, knowable truth and also reminds us that sometimes truth might be too painful, brutal even, to be expressed plainly and simply. And nothing about Morrison’s writing is plain or simple, rather it is dense and lyrical. In her preface, the author warns us that we are going to be thrown in the deep end but once you dive into her ocean of language it is easy to get used to. Again, the narrative is constructed so considerately, the pieces do anything but fall into place. Beloved is full of sensations and truths, the characters are complex, the prose is poetic. This book is heart-rending, eye-opening and brilliantly written. I read the last two pages four times, because I couldn’t let go of this spectacular language and I am sure I will re-read this novel again and again.
“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knew 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.”