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Book review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

I’ve been holding off on reviewing Toni Morrison’s Beloved because how can you really critique such a book? It won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and its author Toni Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature.

All I can really do is tell how I felt about what is considered to be one of the world’s greatest novels that was ground-breaking when written and remains extraordinary.

Set in the mid-1800s, Beloved centres on a woman named Sethe who has escaped, with her children, from slavery in Kentucky. For one month, she experiences the big and small joys of freedom, before she sees her owner coming to reclaim her, forcing her to make the most awful of decisions – to kill her children rather than allow them to endure the pain and shame of slavery.

While three of her children survive, one does not. That child, a toddler at the time, continues to haunt Halle and her household.

Morrison’s writing is lyrical and offers many lines of truth and beauty, and she masterfully captures the place, time and people of which she writes. Her dialogue is incomparable.

She captures the ambiguity of individuals’ behaviour, ranging from the cruelly punishing someone who they believes are too proud, to risking their lives and unquestioningly opening their doors to those in need.

She also writes of the love of a mother for her children, and the terrible choice that Sethe makes for her own, and as a mother, I found the way Morrison wrote of love to be deeply moving. There were many times when I had to put the book down to check on my children in their beds.

Rather than wax lyrical about her words, here are some of my favourite passages in all of their beauty:

“The morning after the first night with Paul D, Sethe smiled just thinking about what the word could mean. It was a luxury she had not had in eighteen years and only that once. Before and since, all her effort was directed not on avoiding pain but on getting through it as quickly as possible. The one set of plans she had made – getting away from Sweet Home – went awry so completely she never dared life by making more.”

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“She wished for Baby Suggs’ fingers molding her nape, reshaping it, saying, “Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that mess down. Sword and shield.” And under the pressing fingers and the quiet instructive voice, she would. Her heavy knives and defense against misery, regret, gall and hurt, she placed one by one on a bank where clear water rushed on below.”

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“This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw.”

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“… he ran with convicts, stayed with the Cherokee, followed their advice and lived in hiding with the weaver woman in Wilmington, Delaware: three years. And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its graveyards and low-lying rivers. Or just a house – solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried hard not to love it.”

Beloved is not an easy book to read – the language, however beautiful – can be difficult to understand, particularly at the start. There is a lot of subtlety, which can be lacking in a lot of modern page-turners that are far easier to read, but not as rewarding.

If you’re willing to put in the effort until the language becomes more familiar, and if you can endure the dark and heavy themes, Beloved is a book that is without peer. It is beautifully intense, and assuredly unflinching in its portrayal of violence, pain, heartache and love.

 

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