Wednesday, April 06, 2011

73. Beloved by Toni Morrison

In Beloved (1987) Toni Morrison expanded the possibilities of the fiction genre from that which she created in Song of Solomon. She redefined the boundaries, broadening the horizon so as to write a story of stellar attribute with depth, passion, and a sensibility no other writer can express except Morrison. It is as if the words, scenes, sentences, speech and sense-making were being drawn from a well she only could see the bottom.

In this novel, different writing styles merged, swirled and that which came forth was of a uniform consistency that bespeak a master artist. For instead of the different writing styles veering the reader off the course, jarring his mind, throwing him here and there till he dizzied, they supported each other, strengthened the storyline and conveyed the essence of the write to the reader.

As a mix of omniscient narratives, point-of-view narratives from different characters and first person narratives, with the pendulum swinging between the past and the present - flashbacks was used to carry the story - Beloved tells of a woman, Sethe, who at the point of being recaptured into slavery by the very man - Schoolteacher - and to the very place - Sweet Home - she had escaped from at a time when slavery has been somewhat abolished, killed her already-crawling daughter to avoid capture and prevent her going through what she had gone through. Released from prison custody, through the efforts of the Bodwins, Sethe and her other daughter Denver, erected a tombstone on the grave of the already-crawling daughter with the inscription Beloved, for she had not enough money to pay the engraver to write fully the first two words the preacher had almost always used at church 'Dearly Beloved' and the daughter had not a name.

Considered as weird, Sethe withdrew from society and society also withdrew from her. For whereas Sethe considered whatever she did as love, the black community deemed it strange and wrong. Deserted by her two sons - Howard and Buglar - Sethe lived a hermit life with Denver until Paul D, a man she grew up with at Sweet Home, a man she thinks she knows, a man who is the half-brother of her husband - Halle - arrived at 124. Paul D reawakened the life in her, sacked Beloved's ghost that was haunting the house and had made Denver friendless. Everything was working until Stamp Paid, the man who had helped Sethe cross the river whilst escaping from Sweet Home to Baby Suggs (Halle's mother) at 124, showed and read to Paul D, the news article about the murder. And Paul D also left 124 but not until Beloved had appeared in flesh, perhaps to exact her retribution on the woman who kept her on the other side with 'nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in.' or perhaps to reclaim her love.

This is a strangely moving story that tells of the history of African Americans in the period just after the abolishment of slavery. It uses the life of one individual and her love to represent, not entirely but to some appreciable extent, the height and depth of suffering these class of Americans went through. It does not try to elicit pity from the reader. It is presented as it is for Sethe never pitied herself.

One could feel a lot going on in this novel. Some events, like the rape of Sethe, which was described as the taking away of her milk, the beatings she received at the hands of Schoolteacher that was described as chokeberry in blossoms by Paul D, were only talked about but never mentioned directly and this style of writing teases the reader to reason, forces him to imagine what's going on. In effect the reader becomes an extension of the novel.

Just as it is in Song of Solomon, in Beloved realism and surrealism merge at a point that is difficult to define or stake out. That the reader does not know if what the character is seeing is real or not an example being the beautiful conversation between Denver and Beloved:
"Why do you call yourself Beloved?"
Beloved closed her yes. "In the dark my name is Beloved."
Denver scooted a little closer. "What's it like over there, where you were before? Can you tell me?"
"Dark," said Beloved. "I'm small in that place. I'm like this here." She raised her head off the bed, lay down on her side and curled up.
Denver covered her lips with her fingers. "Were you cold?"
Beloved curled tighter and shook her head. "Hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in."
"You see anybody?"
"Heaps. A lot of people is down there. Some is dead." (Page 75)
Again, did the entourage who set forth for 124 to relieve Sethe from the bewitchment they thought she was under see Beloved? Was she real to them? Did she actually fly off? And this reminds of Macon Dead in Song of Solomon.

This is a must read from the Nobelist. It could easily be a text book for an advanced course in writing. I deeply enjoyed this novel. To end this I would quote a piece of what Sethe thought of Beloved:
Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don't have to explain before because it had to be done quick. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. I knew she would be. Paul D ran her off so she had no choice but to come back to me in the flesh. I bet you Baby Suggs, on the other side, helped. (Page 200)


  1. I have heard a lot about this book and really want to read it. It does sound heartbreaking though, and I bet it is a book that will make me weep. This was a very interesting and thoughtful review, Nana, and I really thank you for expounding on the book and sharing your thoughts on it with us.

  2. thanks Zibilee, it really could make some cry.

  3. This is one book I started sometime ago and stopped b'cus I could not get along with it. Now, after reading your review, it is clear why I could not get along - was simply because of the realism and surrealism you've written about. I would be going into this book with full on my second try. Thanks, Nana.

  4. Don't look for a tight plot. Just read and link the flashbacks to the present. And also don't put impossibilities in your mind, else you would not enjoy it. Make a lot of use of our belief system here and you would get through it without any problem. I had early on read song of Solomon which was another boundary-stretching novel and once I got that I knew I would get this.

  5. I've heard a lot about Toni Morrison and her books but never gave them a try. Maybe I should.

  6. I loved this book and I can confirm that it can make people weep, because I did cry a lot while I was reading it.

    There is also a movie... with Oprah!

  7. You should. Her novels require some commitment.

  8. @Stefania it's capable of making readers cry especially with Morrison's deep metaphors. The comparisons are so clear and touching that one cannot but wonder how humans could be treated this way. There was a part that talked about Paul D's journey where he met more dead people than living ones.

  9. Well, it's official! I'm keeping you for all eternity since you've declared for Beloved. Because it is only one of the best books ever written and I love it sooooo much. What more can I say? Brilliant review! Thanks!

  10. @Kinna, didn't know you love the book that much. I fell in love with her imagination and the natural flow of words and scenes and the story as if she was only writing it from a movie. She makes the surreal sound believable and everything else. Then her precise use of language in the periods she wrote about.

  11. I have heard so much about Toni Morrison's book and principally haven't read it because I never came across it. After this review, Nana you make me feel like getting a hold of it and weeping my contribution if need be. Thanks for the post.Great review too.

  12. @Thanks afrilingual. You should get a copy of this all important novel. It tells from whence they have come, the black Americans. Some of them seem to have forgotten. And it is a history we must keep lest we become careless.

  13. OK, I really really must read Toni Morrison soon! I keep hearing more about her and especially about this book. It sounds fantastic.

  14. her writing is like an Opera you either love it at first reading or hate it. But i guess you would love it. It's so lovely. She's unique in her approach to the genre. It is fantastic

  15. It's been many years since I read this book, but I remember being blown away by it. Morrison is a great writer.

  16. Perhaps you should revisit it again.

  17. this is a must read book. i just love it. watched the movie as well and i cant just have enough of it. its one book you wouldn't get just a single word to describe. it's soo...

  18. @hannie... beautiful. I haven't as yet watched the movie. Would love to.


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