Wednesday 14 January 2009

A Familiarity?

There’s a definite familiarity to Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy. With its ghostly visitations, multi-perspective chapter structure and central thematic of mother-love perverted by a barbaric system, the book, touted as an unofficial “prelude” to Beloved, feels like a compendium of much of her earlier work. It’s easy to spot flaws: the new novel is over-written but terribly sketchy in places, the characters’ psychology often seems more 1960s than 1690s, and the obfuscatory style doesn’t quite hide some contrived, melodramatic and even hokey plot elements. The florid/fake naïve chapters in Florens’s voice are particularly unsuccessful, I think. But, in spite of all this, it’s still one of the best American novels I’ve read in ages and much more compelling than Morrison’s last work, 2003's Love. It's full of penetrating insight, is bracing in its feminism, and capable of encompassing the domestic and the mythic, the intimate and the historical in the same paragraph. The chapter from the perspective of Jacob Vaark, the Anglo-Dutch trader, and the sections detailing Rebekka’s journey from England to America and Lina’s experience of colonisation, are Morrison at her very, very best. Her ability to present an event from multiple perspectives is second to none and no novelist I know is better at exploring the daily difficulty of beating back a painful past. "To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing," Morrison tells us in the final chapter via a character who offers, at last, a crucial new perspective on the novel's central event. Despite its flaws and its sense of déjà vu A Mercy is a novel to celebrate.

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