I chose to read this novel for a variety of reasons. For many years now, I have heard of the brilliance of this book. This book has been billed as the “best work of fiction of the last 30 years” by the NY Times and has also been placed within the top 10 of various lists of best fiction of the 20th Century. With praise like that, it is almost impossible not to disappoint, but for a lot of reasons, I though this book was very much a four-star book instead of a five-star book.
The story concerns Sethe, an escaped slave living in Ohio after the Civil War. As one can imagine, she has suffered quite a bit and her body bears the marks of rape, torture, etc. More than the physical abuse she has suffered, though, she is haunted by her memories. In the course of learning about all sorts of brutal things in this book, we learn that Sethe killed her two-year-old daughter, Beloved, rather that risking the child’s return to the plantation in Kentucky from which she escaped. The bad thing is, though, Beloved has come back, and it is pretty hard for Sethe to move on with the incarnation of her deceased daughter living in the house.
Make no mistake, I thought the novel was very good and it is likely one that will stay with me for an incredibly long time. To rate something in the top 10 of the 20th Century, though, I think I expected a bit more.
The motif of slavery and the scars that Sethe and others have suffered as a result of slavery are certainly not lost on me. Sadly, I think a lot of people forget that reality of slavery and the abject misery and suffering caused by the most peculiar and evil institution. Whether it is because I live in the South or for whatever reason, I didn’t need the shocking scenes set forth in this novel to let me know how damaging slavery was for all involved, and how much damage the institution still causes today.
Whatever can be said about the plot, little criticism can be lobbed at Morrison’s style and ability. I think this book is as close to any Faulkner, Conrad, Joyce, etc. that I have ever read. The way various pieces to the larger puzzle are dropped throughout the text, often causing me to stop and say, wait, did she really just say what I think she said, is incredible. If you are bothered by scenes of violence (and this book, like the institution of slavery itself, was more violent that anything I have ever read and any movie I have ever seen), this book is not for you.
All in all, an impressive work that I am glad I tackled. I don’t know whether it is quite worth the high praise it receives, but there is no doubt that it is truly a very special book.