‘I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness.’ -Toni Morrison
Man is not God yet he has played God not only with his fellow animals but his fellow humans too. And what a God he has been: a callous, cruel, murderous paragon of barbarianism. He has left no stone unturned to decimate hundreds of species that freely roamed the earth once, flitted in its air or swam its waters. He has dared to reverse the evolutionary cycle of an entire human species by subjugating and reducing them to cattle. The dark history of Slavery available to the masses today barely comes close to the ominous tempest that pulverised centuries in America and whose tremors are still felt under those skies.
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and recently has been adjudged the best American fiction in recent twenty five years, beating the oeuvres of John Updike and Philip Roth. The citation may be debatable but surely, Morrison was awarded Noble Prize for Literature in 1993 for the ‘visionary force and poetic import’ of her writing.
Beloved is a both a ballad and a dirge of millions of humans, a sea of men, women, children, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, their bodies, souls, bones, skins, lives and deaths lost to slavery. Millions are the stories and many have told it before but none has put the reader in the eye of the raging black tempest like Toni Morrison.
It is 1873, Cincinnati, Ohio. The book begins with Sethe and Denver, the occupants of a gray-white house called ‘124’ on Bluestone Road. The mother and daughter are living alongside the malicious ghost of a baby who was slaughtered by her own mother when she was just two. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
Sixteen years ago, Sethe had escaped from the clutches of ‘Sweet Home’, the plantation in Kentucky where she was a slave. Her escape was triggered by a larger plan gone awry due to the capture of men slaves Sixo and Paul D, and disappearance of Halle, Sethe’s husband. Sixo was put to a gruesome end and Paul D was put in a three-spoke collar and chains. Sethe’s milk was sucked by mossy-toothed cousins of the hateful schoolteacher who took notes while they desecrated her. She was whipped with cowhide for reporting on them to the dying mistress of the estate. A distraught Sethe resolved to set herself and her children free by escaping to Baby Suggs in Ohio, with or without her husband Halle.
Baby Suggs was already free as her son Halle had bought her from the earlier more human master by further pawning himself. At the earliest chance, Sethe dispatched her two sons and an ‘already crawling?’ daughter to Baby Suggs in a carriage, helped by people committed to liberating slaves. Immediately after that a very pregnant Sethe trudged her way to freedom. She was helped by an indentured white slave girl en route who also helped her deliver the baby in a boat. Sethe named the baby ‘Denver’ after the white girl.
She was united with her children and mother-in-law at 124 in Ohio. They had a grand celebration attended by the African-American community in the neighbourhood. However, the merry-making was cut short by the arrival of her master and his cousins accompanied by the sheriff. The Fugitive Slave Law permitted the owners of fleeing slaves to track and claim them from anywhere including the ‘free’ northern states. Sensing her imminent capture Sethe rounded up her sons and daughters and rushed them into a woodshed where she cut the neck of her elder daughter with a handsaw and tried to kill her sons and the infant daughter too. She would rather have them dead and safe than allow them to return to the scourge of slavery. Somehow the liberationists prevailed and saved Sethe from a certain death at the hands of the law. But the shock was too much for her mother-in-law who took to bed and faded away.
Outcast and sequestered, Sethe and Denver were eking out a subdued existence when one day Paul D, one of the Sweet Home men who had escaped from jail and survived, turns up at 124. Paul D and Sethe are happy to be united once more and are immediately drawn to each other. No sooner than Paul D starts putting up at 124 the ghost makes its vicious presence known. Paul D responds with even greater violence by knocking things around and miraculously, the ghost vanishes for good! His joy is short-lived though as it returns in the fleshed out form of a girl the age she would have been if she had not died. The girl tells them her name is Beloved, exactly the name Sethe could give to her ‘already crawling?’ girl. In fact, ‘Beloved’ was all she could get chiseled on a pink headstone for the daughter she had murdered, by paying with sex. Beloved chases Paul D away and takes both Denver and Sethe in her grips. But as soon as it dawns upon Sethe who Beloved is, she abandons everything else in her life to dote upon her. Soon, she ignores Denver completely and starts wasting away, repenting, explaining herself and propitiating Beloved.
Beloved doesn’t make for a light reading. It is intense, disturbing, scalding, lyrical, lilting and haunting, all at the same time. To be sure, the book is not bound by linearity or temporality. Nor is it bound by words or sentences. The book seems to have been written in timelessness and wordlessness. Beloved is a book written in grains of emotions. Toni Morrison puts the reader straight in the souls of the writhing and wriggling slaves, the people who had neither any right nor knowledge of their parents or offspring, siblings or spouse, nor did they have any right on their hands, their feet, their faces, their power, their virility, their femininity; people, who had no rights to the sun and the wind, the moon and the stars, the trees and the flowers, the earth and the sky, the clouds and the rains. She puts the reader in the poignant heart of a mother hankering for her dead daughter one moment and the next she thrusts him to the gut-wrenching misery of a dead daughter and her pining for her mother.
Beloved is also unique in the sense it blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead, yet it must not be mistaken for a ghost story. The emotions, suppressed and stubborn, flit from past to the present and back to the past, from living to the dead and back to the living, revisiting the times and places, the ‘rememory’ again and again and yet again, establishing themselves both on the characters and the readers. It is complete in its portrayal of brutal, lifelong suppression that has permanently impaired the individuality of the slaves, bonded or freed, rendering it difficult for them to trust themselves, or to trust the ones without skin and with mossy teeth. Their humiliation is complete. Their destruction is complete. Their desecration is complete. Their devastation is complete. Beloved, the apocalyptic work of Tony Morrison, is replete with endurance and fortitude of these splintered souls. It remains a short but surprisingly complete history of the institution of Slavery.
“But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and afterlife, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them everyone. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.”
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Vintage Random House
Excellent review USP ! Those who have not read this book will hit the stands for a copy after reading this review and those who have read it already, will revisit the pages 🙂
Sharmila, I have read other books on slavery and each has struck me hard but Beloved left me petrified.
It is not a ghost story and yet it blurs the line between the living and dead must make it very interesting. Excellent review as always. In fact you should review books for newspapers. TOI has no book reviews and the HT reviews do nothing to inspire or inform.
Newspapers? TOI? HT? The grapes are sour, Alka. Remember, I am One Grain Amongst the Storm! Thank you for your kindness.
Yes, that is true. Yet, once you are in the middle of Morrison’s twister nothing can retrieve you. Thanks for appreciating.
what a review!!! your interpretation of a book is all i get to read and that’s more than enough for me! even if i become an avid reader one day and start reading all the books on earth, you will still remain my favourite writer.
just wondering why wordpress decided not to send me the post notification this time.
That is a heart-warming compliment, Deb. My God bless you! Something seems to be wrong with WP notifications for sure. I’ll write to them.
This looks like a wonderful book which seems to have escaped my eyes. I would surely want to read a Noble prize winning story for sure.
However, you’ve presented an equally outstanding review of this classic book. It makes me feel like I’ve missed out on something good.
Thanks for sharing this review and kindling an interest in this book.
Nobel Prize is usually awarded for an author’s works as a whole. There are many a gem out there, famous and forgotten, waiting to be read. Many thanks to you.
Wonderful review Uma. I especially liked the part where you say it is not a ghost story but blurs the line between living and dead and that’s enough for me to read this book.
Thank you for your confidence in my words, Jas. As for the blurred lines, that indeed is the case. You are going to love this book.
Wonderful review… Thanks for sharing……
Thanks for stopping by.
After reading this post, I am really embarrassed that I never came across this book. Your review is equally captivating. I will surely read this book.
Nothing to be embarrased about, Meenakshi. There are a triilion sparkling stars in the sky. Ever read Du Fu? He is a Tang Dynasty Chinese poet. Do read him too.
Thanks for your kind words.
I was just thinking that–as I haven’t read the book, or anything by Toni Morrison, but I need to rectify that soon. Uma, it’s not often that a book review could be called “powerful,” but I think you nailed it with this one.
Am I happy to receive that plaque, Jenn! Believe me, it was a tough one to nail down. It is a complex book and I have a feeling that I may have just skimmed the top. A million thanks to you! 😀
As usual, Uma, you effortlessly capture the mood of the book in your review. I am the chap who prefers light reading but every time I read a review by you I get glimpses of a world of literature that I am missing.
Suresh, I am also astounded often by the sheer wealth of priceless gems that may be lying out there, unbeknownst to me! But it is my request to you to step out and explore intenser, foreign yet human worlds. Thanks for your beautiful comment.
I must confess I started reading this book last year and gave up after 20 pages. It lies at my bedside table as a reminder that I must complete it. Reading your review is a great push in that direction!
Corinne, Morrison’s style could be tangled for the beginners. However, you only need to step further into the gale and you will lifted with a force. Pick up that book again!
Will do! Starting Feb 1st, sir!
I presume that is a compliment, madam!
Marked on goodreads!
A good read, for sure.
Great review Uma Shankar Ji, so I need to get my hands at it next 🙂
That is a fine book to pick up, Purnendu. Happy reading and thanks for the compliment!
Once again a great review, Umashankar.
Many thanks, TF.
Great review, but am a bit scared of reading such an intense book which seems to be quite gruesome in places. It probably has the ability to shake you up and dwell on the story and characters long after you have read the book, which is the making of a great literature.
Gruesome it is. But more than that, it is a painful account of unbridled suffering. It is certainly going to linger in your thoughts for long and that is a mark of all great writings.
Keep away when you are inclined upon lighter readings. But do let it unveil the cruelties men can unleash, and the miseries men can endure, when you are are ready for it.
Amazing review US ! Makes me want to go and buy it right now. But what you have outlined is indeed dark and dark were the days when slavery and even worse were the order of the day. I will probably have to look for a bright day to read something like this, as a book this dark will surely make for heavy reading. The only book I have read with racial overtones and slavery was “To Kill a Mocking Bird” which was a fantastic read.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful book indeed. I was quiet young when I had read it but I still remember it vividly. Maybe it’s time to revisit that classic.
Yes, Beloved will make your heart heavy. Do read it sometime though. Thanks for liking the review.
I read this book 2 years back and I remember how disturbed I felt. It never came across as a ghost story but I could always feel the pain it carried the moment I opened its pages.
Have you read ‘The Colour Purple’? That is another masterpiece.
True, Amit. It is a poignant book from the very first sentence, right through its length till the last word uttered. I am yet to read The Color Purple.
I haven’t read much in recent years except for wildlife related books and journals. Beloved seems to be a gripping novel that is bound to stir your mind for a long time. Your review ensures that this book is read by many more. Well written.
Thank you, Sabyasachi. I am aware of your passion and dedication to photography. I also happen to know, albeit on a much smaller scale, how consuming and financially devastating it can get. There are times I find it hard to explain why a lens filter I own costs more than the entire camera of my neighbours. They simply think I am a braggart, or sick, or both.
Thank you for reading and appreciating.
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