Content Warning: this review contains discussion of fictional child sexual abuse.
As I continue to try to real more diversely, I decided that it was finally time I gave Toni Morrison a go. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature (among many, many others), I picked one of the two books I have of hers waiting on my shelf and gave it a read.
“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison is a short novel set in a community in Ohio, USA in the early 1940s. African American sisters Claudia and Freida, 9 and 10 years old respectively, have begun to become aware of the social implications of skin colour, and conduct small rebellions against white-skinned dolls and lighter-skinned schoolmates. When another girl from the community named Pecola fosters with their family, the sisters are confronted with a new level of poverty and disadvantage. It is revealed right in the beginning of the story that Pecola has been impregnated by her own father. With a number of main characters, “The Bluest Eye” unpacks the circumstances that led to Pecola’s ultimate betrayal and abuse.
It’s no surprise that Morrison has won so many awards, she is an extremely talented writer with a particular gift for characterisation. First person narrator Claudia is an extremely likeable character and a great lens through which to begin the story. Morrison’s exploration into the psyche of Pecola’s parents is also well-done, and she manages to elicit a very uncomfortable empathy for Pecola’s father Cholly. Pecola herself maybe didn’t quite get a fair shake of the stick, and we only get a short and confusing glimpse into her perspective. The main difficulty I had with this book is that despite the excellent writing, some unique stylisation and the way it deals with important themes was the plot. The book is a bit more like a long, fictional memoir or essay without much of a narrative arc. I think this is compounded by the fact that the event the book is building up to is the graphic rape of a child by her father. Additionally, Morrison focuses a lot on bodily functions giving this book a very visceral feel. Maybe that’s the point: this book is more social commentary than it is parable. It is easy to imagine this story as a real series of events.
A well-written but troubling book, I’m very interested to read Morrison’s other novel “Beloved” to see how it compares.