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Beloved
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on 10 September 2014
What a pleasure to read a great modern novel.

The American Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Beloved, her fifth book, was inspired by a true story about a slave-mother in the mid-nineteenth century (called Sethe in the novel), who escaped across the river Ohio to the free city of Cincinnati, just before the Civil War.

There are four principal voices, about whom we learn as much from how they talk as what they say. There is a shocking central narrative, which darts back and forth in time like the unfolding of a shared trauma in group psychoanalytic sessions. The African-Americans who tell the story are profoundly instinctive and generally terrified of 'whitepeople', who are usually seen as non-human.

Other characters are also brought to life, such as the slave-owner, 'Schoolteacher', or the old-timer and ex-slave, 'Stamp Paid'. Though hers is not the pivotal character in the story, Sethe's daughter Denver became (for me) the anchor, as the most sympathetic and rounded person, who eventually frees herself from mental subjugation.

Ghosts are flesh and blood entities in Beloved. Sethe's daughter (called Beloved) reappears after many years, despite having been killed when an infant by her mother, who did not want her baby to be captured by a vicious slave-owner. This incident had led to Sethe and her family being shunned by their community. As in South Africa under apartheid, oppression can lead not to solidarity amongst the oppressed but to fierce mutual suspicion. This feels more realistic than the somewhat simplistic characterisations in the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years A Slave.

Occasionally the novel can be obscure. But this minor fault is massively outweighed by the imaginative writing which brings to life the hemmed-in and yet freely-roaming mindsets of the central characters.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 February 2016
Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live isolated lives in their community, because everyone knows that their house at no. 124 is haunted. Sethe's two sons have already left, unable to take any more of the spiteful tricks played by the ghost. But Sethe and Denver see the ghost differently. To Sethe it is the other daughter that she lost, a child known only by the single word carved on her gravestone, “Beloved”. The ghost is angry but Sethe understands why and endlessly forgives, no matter how cruel or violent her behaviour. And to Denver, the ghost is her sister, her only companion in her loneliness. Then one day a man from Sethe's past arrives, Paul D, who knew her when they were both slaves on Sweet Home. It seems at first that he has driven the ghost away, until some weeks later a strange young woman arrives at the house – her name, Beloved.

Despite the ghostly presence of Beloved, this is mainly a straightforward account of the horrific treatment meted out to many slaves and of the need for the characters to face their past in order to be able to create a better future in their hard-won freedom. Beloved is an obvious metaphor for slavery itself, still haunting and torturing those who have apparently escaped its chains. And the 'message' is that freedom is as much a state of mind as of body – that slavery's after-effects still have Sethe in its toils, and that even the next generations, embodied in Denver and the missing sons, live their lives in its shadow.

The simplicity of the message does not, however, make it in any way a simple book. Morrison's brilliant writing and imagery turn this into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope.

Sethe was born into slavery and sold to Sweet Home when she was a young girl – the only girl amongst a small group of men. Sethe had her pick of them and her choice fell on Halle. The story of Sethe's time on Sweet Home is told in flashback, so the reader is quickly aware that some horrific series of events led to a heavily pregnant Sethe, alone, on the run, trying to make her way to the Free States. Her three children had been smuggled out before her and she is desperate to get to her youngest daughter, whom Sethe was still breast-feeding when they separated. But we also know from flashbacks to a later period, when Sethe has made it to freedom, that this is the daughter who dies in infancy.

Morrison uses the imagery of milk throughout the book, as a symbol of the bond between mother and daughter, and of the basic right of any woman to nurture her own child. Sethe herself was denied this right as a child – it was more economic for there to be one slave to feed all the children than to allow mothers to feed their own. So for her, giving her milk to her own children is a deep need, an assertion of her humanity. And in an act of extreme brutality, she is subjected to something that for her is worse than rape – the stealing of her milk, her children's milk. It is this moment of fundamental violation that drives her to act as she does – to be willing to do anything rather than see her children, especially her daughters, raised as slaves.

Paul D's story is just as harsh, and Morrison's telling of it is an eloquent indictment of some of the worst practices inflicted on slaves – not just appalling physical cruelty, but a process of psychological dehumanisation that left the men stripped of the strength to rebel. And perhaps the worst aspect of it is that it is entirely believable – the basest cruelties carried out with a casual disregard – man's inhumanity to man indeed.

These are the histories that Sethe and Paul D, and Beloved, must face and understand before they can have hope of true freedom. As the memories, or rememories as Sethe calls them, are told, they will have to be able to forgive each other and themselves for the things they did to survive. And Denver, the one child not born into slavery, if she is to provide hope for future generations, will have to find some way to break the chains that bind her to her mother's history. As the book draws towards the climax, these three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved, reveal their deepest selves in an intertwining stream of consciousness of unforgettable horror, power and dark beauty.

Even when the imagery is at its harshest, Morrison fills it with a savage poetry that lifts it to something so much more than a mere catalogue of human baseness. The sheer beauty of the writing contrasts so vividly with the ugliness of the story that it, in itself, provides a kind of promise of redemption – a proof that humanity can indeed rise from the ashes, however devastating the fire. In the end, Sethe comes to believe that Beloved's is not a story to pass on – but it is! It is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn't that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved's story.
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on 30 June 2016
After the huge success of Twelve Years a Slave it is interesting to read another account of life as a slave in the Southern States Of America, both before and after the Civil War. This novel has a quirky twist, in that the character Beloved is a ghost, and the social history of attitudes and mores of both male and female slaves, some of whom buy their freedom, is extremely well researched and portrayed. At times this is a harrowing book to read but it is beautifully crafted, switiching between the consciousnesses of the characters, men and women, children and teenagers. Much of it is written in first person narrative and is totally convincing. You definitely feel you have read one of the classics.
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on 5 March 2016
Had to read it for university and I was really impressed! The novel is in a poetic prose style, set in the era of slavery and during the “era of reconstruction”. Morrison pushes realism to the limit in this novel, and the disjointed narrative tells and retells events from different perspectives, giving the impression that all memories can be true and untrue. Morrison creates a thoughtful and questioning narrative about the unspeakable horrors within the story, which explores the self, infanticide, and murder.
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on 16 April 2018
I first read this, when it came out originally, back in the late 1980s. It had been recommended by my English lecturer. I enjoyed it then, and have enjoyed re-reading it again. A great story. Probably Toni Morrison's best novel.
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on 24 May 2016
Complex, dense, confusing and terrifying, but with a narrative that pulled me through and kept me turning the pages to find out what happens next - and even with a happy ending. This is an amazing novel. I've been scared to read it for so long, and although it is gruelling I am so glad to have tackled it now
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on 12 January 2018
Product was as described, received quickly. Thanks!
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on 14 August 2017
Well written, tale of slavery and racism, love and loss. Supernatural and upsetting.
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on 27 January 2017
This is a pretty awful book. It sounded intriguing but it got sillier and sillier.
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on 18 April 2018
love it
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