My first experience with Toni Morrison's writing was in college when the professor assigned The Bluest Eye. I don't remember much about the plot, but I do remember that it made me feel like I was in the presence of a literary great. The quality of writing was superb and even after reading a number of wonderful books that semester The Bluest Eye impressed me most. Fast forward to this year, when I first saw that Beloved was on the Fiction of Relationship reading list. I knew I was in for a treat yet at the same time was not sure that the book would live up to my inflated expectations.
When the time came to actually read the book I was relieved to see that Morrison is consistent in her ability to impress me. Her prose is beautiful in its simplicity, her characters full of life. She simply tells the story and you can't help but care about the people in it, can't help but wonder what will happen next. She doesn't try to make you like her characters, they are who they are with their complicated lives and choices, but you care about them nonetheless. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Denver because she not only had a unique way of dealing with the difficulties her life presented, but also was the one who stepped up to the challenge of Beloved's presence in the most impressive way. She started out a child younger than her 18 years, yet at the close of the novel she was transformed into a young woman more mature than her years.
The novel is set in the South before and after the Civil War and tells the stories of Sethe and other former Sweet Home slaves as they build lives for themselves on and off the farm. Their experiences, their desires and their despair are highlighted all the more by our present lives and the fact that many of the events Morrison describes are unthinkable to the present-day reader. They seem almost surreal at times, and I had to remind myself that things like what Morrison talks about did happen, and not that long ago.
I believe that a sign of a good book is that it makes you think. More often than not such books don't go down smoothly, but they sure stay with you. They make you want to ponder what's said on those pages, revisit ideas and impressions, look back at the beliefs you hold and see if they still hold up. Beloved does that, and no, it's not an easy read. Not only is it not easy, it also doesn't give up all its secrets, not even at the very end. You can turn the last page and believe what you choose about Beloved because her story doesn't really have an ending, which to me is incredibly intriguing. How do you write a story where the same events can be both supernatural and perfectly explainable? How do you create characters who are both? I don't know if Morrison's is the only way, but it sure is effective.
I've been thinking for a several days now whether I would recommend this book to a friend and I can't come up with a 'yes' or 'no' answer. On one hand it's not a straightforward book and I don't believe that someone who's looking for a straightforward story would appreciate it. On the other hand it is so well-written that I'm tempted to insist that my friends read it. So my answer would be like that flow-chart, Are you looking for a simple escapist story? Then no, you won't enjoy this novel. Are you looking for something to feed your brain and be beautiful at the same time? Then yes, this novel is for you.
Like a good curry, Beloved is a taste of powerful storytelling. Toni Morrison's poetic language immerses the reader in the story of Sethe, a slave who escaped to Cincinnati, Ohio but not free from slavery's haunting effects. The house she shares with her sole remaining child Denver born during the escape is haunted by the ghost of her baby. Things come to a boil when Paul D, a fellow slave and escapee from Sweet Home, and a mysterious young lady named Beloved arrive. Rather than chronological exposition, the characters' experiences in slavery are related through twists and turns of flashbacks, amplified by the prism of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, Toni Morrison's fifth novel was a great choice for Black and Women's History Months from the list of 1001 books you must read before you die.