A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Fiction hardcover, 2008 Knopf
A seemingly short novel at 167 pages and narrated in lyrical language by several voices, A Mercy is in fact an intense and often internalized perspective on the effects of slavery on the human mind and heart. In colonial America of the late 1600s, life is harsh for most people and brutal for slaves. With disease, food shortages, and backbreaking work to contend with, the land is rugged and even the weather seems to conspire against you.
Our story centers around Florens, a young slave girl who has been accepted reluctantly by a Dutch landowner to pay off a debt owed him. He was offered her mother but the slave mother begged the man to take the daughter, thinking Florens would have a better life than with her own brutal, rapist master. Viewpoint shifts as chapters are spoken in different voices, including those of Lina, an old Indian woman whose tribe has been wiped out by smallpox. Sorrow, a lone shipwreck survivor, Rebekka, the childless landowner's wife and Florens mother will all have their say here too. Each will speak in their own voice, something Morrison accomplishes better than most, revealing more about themselves than observation or simple narration could tell us.
Belonging is a strong thread throughout the story, being motherless and yearning for family and closeness, or being childless in the case of their mistress. Lina thinks of young Florens as "love-disabled" because of the way she tries to get close to her, and then to others, including a black freeman who rebuffs her for, among other things, having a slave mentality. There is so much here that the story seemed almost condensed to me. This is not a fast read for most, the story should be read slowly, the language is rich, almost dense at times, and needs to be savoured. But what a powerful story it is. And what it leads us to is the realization that what to some may seem like an act of mercy may in fact feel like an act of abandonment.
In June one of our Weekly Geeks assignments was about catching up on reviews. Readers were invited to ask questions about any books we have read but not yet reviewed. Several people asked about A Mercy by Toni Morrison. This post is my reply to them.
1.gnoegnoe at Graasland said...
Did you read any other books by Toni Morrison before the recent A Mercy and which did you like best? I heard a rave review of A Mercy on Simon Mayo's Book Panel and am curious to know if this is one of those books everyone will have read in a year or so...What do you think?
Sandra: I actually read each of her books as they came out, beginning with The Bluest Eye in 1970. That was followed by Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved. I also read Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which is non fiction. I loved them all but was put off by the supernatural aspects of Beloved. So A Mercy is the first book I've read since Beloved. Which means that I missed out on Paradise, Jazz, and Love, her three novels preceding A Mercy. The Bluest Eye remains my favourite perhaps because it reflected racial attitudes of the time more honestly that most novels had before. It had quite an impact. But all of Morrison's novels are well worth reading. I think anyone who doesn't read this novel will miss out on an enlightening and powerful story.
2.Becky at Becky's Book Reviews said...
I'm also curious about Toni Morrison's A Mercy. Is it good? Did you enjoy it? What is it about? Is it one you'd recommend to others? Who do you think will enjoy it most?
3. Sharon at A Bookworm's Reviews said...
I wanted to know about Toni Morrison's book A Mercy. I see that it has already been asked about so I'll just let their questions stand for me. Thanks!
4.Louise at Lous_Pages said...
By coincidence I read about A Mercy in my paper only yesterday, and it sounds like an amazing book. Is it a difficult read? (Not in terms of the theme, but more the style? I've struggled with Toni Morrison before).
Sandra: Some have found it a difficult read but this book is more of a smorgasbord than a meal. I think it may take more than one trip to the table to discover everything that's there. I think as people get older they enjoy a richer reading experience and many will discovery what a treasure A Mercy really is. My suggestion would be to read it a little more slowly than you normally read a novel.
5.Eva at A Stripped Armchair said...
Did you like the disjointed narrative in A Mercy?
Sandra: The perspective changed often, sometimes from one chapter to the next and the switch between past and present gave some people pause. I did not think of it as disjointed but it took careful reading to be sure you knew who was talking. I just went with the flow and enjoyed the language and feelings described and let that clue me in so I didn't feel lost for very long.
I hope I've answered your questions. Feel free to ask anything or leave your own opinions on the book or links to reviews, even dissenting opinions. I'd love to read them.
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