Tag Archives: toni morrison

Beloved

Historical fiction about a mother’s trauma in the wake of slavery

Content warning: slavery, racism, infanticide

Last year, the renowned author Toni Morrison sadly died. She was the recipient of countless awards for her work including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (a display of which I was able to see when I visited the Nobel Prize Museum last year).

I have only read one of Morrison’s novels, “The Bluest Eye” and I had been debating for a while which of her books I would read next. I found out that many of her novels are available as audiobooks narrated by Morrison herself, and despite this year being a bit shaky for my gym/audiobook routine, I had been doing a bit of running and lawnmowing in lieu of the gym, and decided that I would listen to this one next.

Beloved cover art

“Beloved” by written and narrated by Toni Morrison is a historical fiction novel set in Ohio, USA just after the American Civil War. Sethe, an African American woman and former slave, lives in a haunted house with her 18 year old daughter Denver. The presence in the house is furious, chasing off Sethe’s two sons, and the mother and daughter live an isolated life together. However when Paul D, another former slave from the plantation Sethe escaped, arrives, he challenges the spirit and encourages Sethe and Denver to leave the house. He takes them to a fair, but when they return, they find a girl waiting at the doorstep. The girl, who calls herself Beloved, Sethe believes is her daughter who was killed as a baby.

This is a complex, subtle novel narrated beautifully by Morrison herself. She has a soft, breathy yet expressive voice with each sentence punctuated for excellent dramatic effect and the characters each brought to life. Sethe is a particularly interest character who, up until this point, appears to have been operating on two parallel levels. When Beloved manifests at the house at 124, and Paul D arrives with his questions and memories of the plantation, the two layers of Sethe’s psyche are unable to continue to exist separately. Denver, also initially drawn to Beloved, is the perfect lens through which to observe the changes in Sethe as a result of Beloved’s arrival and goes through significant character development herself. This book is a critical exploration of the multifaceted traumas caused by slavery, and the interplay between memory and identity.

I will admit that despite Morrison’s beautiful narration, this wasn’t a great book for me to listen to as an audiobook. I do have some difficulties with listening comprehension sometimes, and I think the subtlety and the cleverness of this book meant that each time I started daydreaming, I missed a critical part of the book. However, it was captivating enough that I think I would like to reread it in text so if I do, I will come back and update this review.

An excellent and provocative piece of fiction that I would very much like to revisit.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

The Bluest Eye

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.

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“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.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction