Literary novella about friendship between two African American girls
Content warning: encouraging suicide, trauma
At the end of last year, I was deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this book was in my pile. I can’t quite work out where it came from. A second-hand bookstore? The Lifeline Book Fair? Borrowed? It doesn’t have any prices on it to give any hints. I’m wondering if perhaps it just arrived in my street library one day. Anyway, I have read a few books by this author, and this one won the 1993 Novel Prize for Literature, so I was keen to check it out.
“Sula” by Toni Morrison is a novella about two African American girls called Sula and Nel who grow up together in a poor black neighbourhood called The Bottom in Ohio, USA. Although inseparable, Sula and Nel have vastly different home lives. Sula lives with her sensual mother Hannah and magnetic grandmother Eva, with a stream of men, boarders and children coming through the house. Nel, on the other hand, has a much more straight-laced upbringing with her mother Helene who was in turn raised by her strict Catholic grandmother. The book starts in 1919 with each chapter a subsequent year, with sometimes one year passing and sometimes several, until 1965.
This is a deeply complex and at times almost surreal book with incredibly strong feminist themes. Morrison explores the intense and fraught relationships that develop between mothers and daughters, between grandmothers and granddaughters and between friends. I really liked how she tested the different types of love with betrayals, resentments and blame on both sides. Sula and Nel’s different approaches to men and relationships proves almost fatal to their friendship and it takes time and understanding before what was lost can even begin to be reconciled. The book has an interesting perspective because despite being set in America and The Bottom developing as a community in the wake of emancipation, the only mention of white America is at the very beginning of the story. Morrison provides some historical context to the segregated community and opens the novella by describing plans to turn the neighbourhood into a golf course.
I found that Eva and Shadrack were the two most fascinating characters, and despite their respective disabilities and trauma serve as the truthtellers of this story. A provocative character with lapses of indecency and his introduction of National Suicide Day which encourages rather than prevents suicide, WWI veteren Shadrack is nevertheless tolerated and accepted by The Bottom. He provides an interesting counterpoint to the main story as well as a unique lens through which to observe Sula who later becomes a similar type of outcast. Eva also appears to see right through Sula and Nel, and despite her own very idiosyncratic life and questionable decisions, passes easy on those around her. She is especially scathing of bystander apathy and those who “watch”. She proves that on the other hand, there is nothing she isn’t willing to do for herself, her home and her children – even if her ethics appear somewhat misguided.
An intricate novella with some very unique characters that still feels fresh nearly 40 years after publication.