Wednesday 4 February 2009

Book Review: Toni Morrison – Beloved

I have picked up this book once or twice before, started it and for some reason not gotten very far. After reading A Mercy by the same author recently and being very moved by it, I decided to try reading this book again.

In contrast to A Mercy which is set in the very early years of slavery, this novel is set in the first few years after the abolition of slavery. The story is based on the real life account of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave, who in 1856 murdered her infant daughter to prevent her being returned to slavery. In the book Sethe is a middle-aged woman, living with her daughter Denver in 124 Bluestone, a house haunted both literally by the ghost of a child and by her memories. The story of how she escaped from slavery, how she lost each of her children and her husband and why her house is haunted unfolds slowly through flashbacks, story-telling and through the memories relived by other characters.

Whereas A Mercy hinted at the horrors that were beginning to take place on the plantation or the slave-ships, this book illustrates candidly the sheer horror of what black people endured –lynchings, murders, beatings, whippings, chain-gangs, rape, the separation of children from mothers, being “put to stud” or forced to sleep with other slaves and the rise of the KKK. There is no sugar-coating of the details: the piece of a child’s scalp with a red ribbon still attached, one slave watching another being burnt alive, the sheer terror of the runaway slave who is caught.

I felt that the theme that most drove this book was that of the way the past can haunt you and mould your identity. Each of the older characters has endured horrific abuse. Some have turned to their faith to help deal with their pain, some to helping others, others to locking themselves away in isolation. Sethe and her friend Paul D try to suppress their past and their feelings and avoid thinking about their future, they become isolated and bereft until they can help each other to face what has happened to them. In contrast another friend (and my favourite character) Stamp Paid, changes his name after becoming free and spends his days helping runaways and newly freed slaves: guiding them to safe-houses, bringing food, finding patrons, finding lodgings. He recounts his story and that of Sethe and in the process moves on from his past to some extent.

Another major theme is that of identity. When enslaved, names, families and often spouses were chosen by slave owners. Slaves are sold and bought like livestock and on many occasions in the book, the characters are spoken about as if animals. As freed men and women they have to re-create who they are and convince themselves of their worth.

Two other characters I particularly liked were Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law and Ella, another ex-slave. Unlike the proud, isolated Sethe, Baby Suggs home is a resting place for runaway slaves, she is almost a female counterpart of Stamp Paid. She feeds all who come by, provides news and acts as a preacher of sorts leading people to a clearing in the woods to laugh, cry and pray in order to heal. Ella is at the forefront of the small black community, providing a meal and lodgings to whoever needs it – a practical, stringent matriarch of sorts, who believes in getting up and dealing with what needs to be done. She is the one who leads the women to Sethe’s house to perform an exorcism and in doing so brings the novel full circle with the community coming back to 124 Bluestone. On reflection, it felt as if Morrison is, through these two characters and through Denver’s re-engagement with the world in order to survive, hinting at the need for us to build communities and take care of each other

Morrison deals with big themes and attempts to personalise the painful history of slavery by looking at the traumatic and crippling effects of it on the psyche and identity. Although I enjoyed the story and was moved by the plight of its characters I didn’t fully appreciate it whilst reading it. Now the more I think about it, the more many things become clear. This is a book to ponder on and talk about, which keeps throwing up new discoveries and realisations.


  1. Been meaning to read this one...have saved your review to read at my leisure later tonight...Wa'salaam...hugs to your brood :-D

  2. i read this book for A-level english lit -is quite a difficult book to get your head around as it keeps jumping back and forth throughtime and memeories, often without the reader realising.

    although i did enjoy the book and eneded up knowing it like the back of my hand -it did require lots of effort-well worth it though

  3. As-salaamu'alaykum wa Rahmatu Llahi wa Barakatuhu my dearest sister,

    Jazaki'Allahu khair once again for the review!

    I read Sula but Morrison and didn't think much of it (good story.. but nothing special).

    Insha'Allah I'll read this one. My library has it.. yaaaayy! (I actually check online to see if the library has it) :D

    Love Farhana