Monday, February 8, 2010

Beloved

I've been thinking about Toni Morrison's Beloved for days now, but have had trouble getting my thoughts together enough to write a review. Words like "haunting" or "powerful" or "masterpiece" feel cliche, despite their pointed accuracy. To say it is about slavery and its aftermath is a nearly criminal over-simplification.

As the novel opens a few years after the Civil War, Sethe is living alone with her teenage daughter Denver in a house that is haunted by the violent spirit of her older daughter. Even after heroically escaping from slavery with her three children (Denver being born along the way), Sethe has been unable to keep her family together. Her two sons left home because of the poltergeist, and Denver is angry and withdrawn. Sethe is proud and alone, shunned by the townspeople. All of this is observed by Paul D, another slave from the ironically named Sweet Home plantation, who arrives unexpectedly and joins their household. Shortly after he chases the ghost away, a mysterious young woman shows up, calling herself Beloved which is the name Sethe had given to the daughter she murdered.

In the present and in her "rememories," Sethe's act of murder somehow goes from being unthinkable to being somehow inevitable. Sethe had lived in freedom for about a month, and she would rather all her children be dead than be forced to return to captivity at Sweet Home. As Sethe relives this horrible chapter in her life, so does Beloved. While the former tries to explain her desperation, Beloved wants to make her pay for what she did. Paul D and Denver become near-casualties of this war between mother and daughter.

Morrison doesn't tell us of the horror of slavery, or explain to us why it was wrong. Though those truths have been accepted for over a century, there was a time when the ownership of other human beings was not cause for moral outrage. Her characters live during that time, and they have been shaped by something big and ugly. Morrison allows their actions and feelings to tell us what that was, and to give context for their ensuing actions. Sethe is an atypical heroine, strong and terrible, somehow sympathetic, and very memorable.

Beloved is amazingly well written, enjoyable to read even when it depicts scenes that are horrifying. It is a book that everyone should read.

Next up: 1984 by George Orwell for the commute; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to read at home

3 comments:

kappi said...

Hi Darlin,

Being a huge fan of Toni Morrison I immediately ran out and purchased a 1st edition of glorious "Beloved" many years ago. Brilliant, just read it. Read all of her books, especially "Sula"
Thank you for reviving this masterpiece
Kappi

Heather said...

Beloved is my absolute favorite book of all time. I read it first while I was in high school, and was touched on one level. I read it again in college, and experienced a whole different depth to the writing. There are some scenes in the book where Morrison describes the passage across the ocean on a slave ship. I totally missed that in high school, but was struck by it in college. I need to read it again now to see where it takes me this time.

Thanks for your reviews! I really enjoy reading your take on books!

Angie said...

Thanks, Kappi and Heather - I really appreciate the feedback! I'm so glad I finally read this one, and feel like it'll merit many re-reads over the years. It's easily a top-10 book for me.