My first thought upon the news of Toni Morrison’s death was at how ashamed I was to have never read any of her work. I said to myself, “My God this is Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century! I have to go out and buy one of her books!” Flash forward several hours, and I was the proud owner of two of her novels, Beloved and Jazz. I decided to read Beloved as I felt it was the more popular of the two. The result was an emotionally rewarding reading experience that showed me how Morrison became not only a Pulitzer winner but a Nobel Laureate as well.
Beloved is a hard novel to read. While it is not a long book or difficult to understand, it is an emotionally devastating book that left me feeling drained. Every time I thought this book had done its worst to me, I was proven wrong in my next reading session. This is a novel about trauma, on a massive scale with the horrors of American slavery as well as on a personal level with the nature of memory and regret. Morrison permeates these pages with such raw emotion, that it just felt so heavy. I had to put the book down often and just quietly process my feelings about the words I just read.
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
One of the best opening lines in modern literature sets the tone as one of horror. The story follows an African-American family living in a small house in Ohio several years following the Civil War. They are haunted by a mischievous and at times violent spirit of a baby. It drives away the two young boys of the family, leaving Sethe, her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and her daughter Denver alone with the spirit. Both Sethe and Baby Suggs were former slaves who escaped to freedom, but the family appears to be shunned by their surrounding community for reasons that will not be fully disclosed until much later in the novel.
While Beloved begins as a ghost story, Morrison transforms it into a brilliantly written trauma narrative about the horrors of slavery. The incorporation of supernatural elements allows Morrison to explore the true haunting of the human soul and the guilt that occurs with having to make difficult choices. The haunting turns from an unseen spirit into a flesh and blood entity, taking the form of a young woman named Beloved who enters Sethe’s life yet to consume her with guilt. Soon, we learn the nature of how Sethe’s first child died. As a result of this terrible event, Sethe is forever haunted by the death of her baby, as well as her life as a slave, the life that brought her to such drastic measures.
“Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”
Beloved is work by an extraordinary author. There is a reason Toni Morrison’s novels are hailed as classics. Her prose flows like poetry, taking devastating material and turning it into some truly beautiful writing. She has a gift for capturing different voices, as the format and style of writing changes between chapters and sections, depending on the point of view of the narrator. The result is a masterful work that comes together in such a heart-achingly beautiful way. I was brought to tears several times.
While researching the book, I found this great online article on Tor.com about the novel as a work of horror. The author argues that Beloved has never been accepted as a work of horror, while Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is often looked at as a work of science fiction. This article reminds me of a debate from a few years ago surrounding Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant as a work of fantasy. While I’m not completely sure how I feel about the subject, I have always said that the best horror brings its terror from a human perspective. The true terror of Beloved has nothing to do with the supernatural itself but of the severe cruelty and dehumanization of an entire people. As Morrison states in her dedication,”Sixty million and more,” meaning that the aftershocks of slavery can still be felt today. Despite what genre you view it, this novel is in a class all its own. I look forward to reading Jazz in the near future.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.