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A profound pleasure to read such a truly great modern novel
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.