L’Isle des Cheavliers is a tropical paradise where the rich American candy manufacturer Valerian Street has chosen to retire with his much younger wife Margaret and their two black servants, Sydney and Ondine Child. The Childs have a niece, Jadine, currently visiting the island from Paris where she studied and works as a fashion model. All is peaceful under the hot summer sun – apart from the occasional petty arguments of bored married couples – until their dynamics get disrupted by an intruder hiding in a closet: fugitive Son has jumped boat and hidden himself on the Street’s grounds until he got too comfortable and curiosity led him into the house where a terrified Margaret discovered him. But rather than calling the police, Valerian offers him to stay for dinner and overnight – much to the dismay of everyone else. Chaos is sure to ensue in an atmosphere as dense with racism and accusations as the tropical air is humid, and as terrible family secrets are revealed Son and Jadine run away together, though they soon discover that love isn’t always as easy as it seems on a paradise island.
The story that unfolds is a tale of love and betrayal, of family and racism between black and white, and men and women and follows the protagonists from the Island through the US. Tar Baby is a novel so intense, you can feel the suffocating tropical heat. Secrets, twisted storylines, and sudden turns of events create a suspense that often makes you hold your breath – even as it starts deceptively idyllic with talks of flowers, beauty queens, and red-and-white candy. The three couples at the centre of this tale represent power dynamics and struggles, but they also tell a new kind of love story. Without the magical realism of Beloved, Morrison’s writing still creates a sense of mystery. A combination of the personification of trees, houses and animals but also the constant tension, that could almost be considered a character in the book, create the illusion that there is always more to the world than one sees at first glance. Simultaneously an eye-opening social study and a deeply moving emotional tale, Tar Baby has many layers to unpack. The only criticism I have is an abusive relationship that I truly hoped would be avoided, but a man’s good looks make a women enter a relationship against her better judgement. This storyline aside, Toni Morrison fluid writing and narration, the way she seamlessly changes perspective from one character to the next are masterful and her dialogues as always incredibly realistic. A truly powerful novel.