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Challenging and Rewarding from Morrison,
This review is from: Beloved (Mass Market Paperback)
I found this novel rewarding and difficult in equal measure; there is no reason why anything worthwhile should be easy, so the questions for me are does the reward warrant the difficulty and why did Morrison choose such an approach to telling this story.
Why did I find Beloved difficult? Well, I think it was because I never really knew where I was in time. The place was always straightforward enough, I always knew where I was; the characters and their relationships were clearly identified, I could even just about handle the paranormal elements as they slowly unfurled, but, at times, I never really knew which part of the story I was in, as Morrison time-slices and drip-feeds us a little more of the background each time. What ultimately held it together for me was the willpower of the characters themselves, not just Sethe but some minor characters too.
So did the reward overcome that difficulty and, if it did, how?
Well, the reward for me was significant and overwhelmingly worthwhile. Amongst the cautious revelation of more and more of the true horrors of slavery, the mental and physical torment and torture, the sense of fatal destiny that became apparent to children at such a frightfully young age, Morrison nevertheless weaves love, a sense of caring and community and, remarkably, hope.
Morrison opens with a statement of hope by starting the novel in 1873, the civil war is over and the anti-slavery Union is victorious. It is far from that simple of course and the principal characters all have a past steeped in the extremes of slavery's horrors, and that background continues to haunt the story throughout.
Sethe, in her late thirties, is living with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver, in a house that the neighbours avoid because it is haunted. Sethe and Denver live in an uneasy truce with the ghost until the arrival of Paul D, one of Sethe's former fellow slaves on the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky. Paul exorcises the ghost, but then a mysterious female stranger shows up. She is young and curiously unmarked - she has no lines in her palms, for example, and her feet and clothing show no signs of hard travelling. She calls herself "Beloved ", and Sethe and Denver are happy to take her in. Beloved is the single word carved on the headstone of Sethe's other, long dead daughter.
What about the question of Morrison's approach. Well I think she uses it because we learn the whole story as the principal characters learn it themselves. When Paul D arrives at 124 he has twenty years of Sethe's life to catch up on, and vice versa. We find out a little more about Sethe's journey as Paul D discovers it, and this is accomplished by flashback, snippets of rekindled memory, rememorising as Denver call it. Morrison uses this technique to draw us into the story and be a part of the discovery process.
Aside from the tale, it is still, perhaps, difficult for us to accept that as recently as the second half of the nineteenth century slavery of this brutality was a commonplace and pretty much any atrocity you might imagine happened to someone at some time, Morrison simply lets her imagination roam into some pretty ugly situations. At the centre of the story, however, lies perhaps the most horrific incident of all, and the most difficult to contemplate because it is not driven by blind hate or human indifference but by the deepest and most unbreakable of all emotions, a mother's love for her child.
But wanting to leave this on a lighter note, there is some fun and humour here too. In an early passage, Paul D notes,
"If a Negro got legs he ought to use them. Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up."