Written in 1973, Toni Morrison's second novel explores themes of life, love, sex, and death, contrasting Sula Peace and Nel Wright, best friends from childhood who grow up to lead totally different adult lives. Living in the Bottom, an ironically named, poverty-stricken black community in the hills of Medallion, Ohio, Sula and Nel, opposites in personality, share their thoughts, feelings, and secrets, some of them of life-and-death importance. Part of a family with a long history of violence, Sula believes she owes nothing to anyone except herself, while Nel's strict mother imposes limits and insists on her adherence to social values.
Though Sula eventually escapes the Bottom to attend college and travel from Georgia to California, Michigan to Louisiana, she always does what is expedient, having no real values or ambitions, other than her own pleasure. When Sula returns to the Bottom in 1937, the stable Nel is a wife and mother trying to keep her family fed and clothed, a woman who no longer has anything in common with Sula, though she becomes Sula's innocent victim. Morrison develops Sula's character through her dysfunctional relationships and selfish actions, showing her connections to her family's past but never blaming it for her later, abhorrent behavior.
The novel is a series of cycles and follows a circular structure, opening in 1965, as whites decide they want the Bottom land for golf courses and hilltop views and the blacks who have always lived there move to the valley with its more fertile land. The cyclical nature of life is also borne out in the lives of the characters, especially that of Sula, who escapes Bottom but returns inevitably to the community of her mother and grandmother. Racial segregation, accepted as a given, underlies all facets of the novel, but Morrison focuses on character here, avoiding polemics and creating a novel which manages to be tough but often darkly humorous, emotionally sensitive but often brutal, compassionate but realistic about human nature.
Rich with imagery and symbolism, the novel is also accessible and involving. Morrison creates characters with whom the reader identifies, even in Sula, who is a less than sympathetic protagonist; Shadrack, the shell-shocked war veteran who opens and closes the novel, wrings the heart even as he lives a life of absurdity. Filled with irony, intricate in structure, and well-developed in its themes, Sula is less complex than some of Morrison's later novels, but satisfying in its vividly drawn view of a struggling black community unified in its poverty. n Mary Whipple