Beloved by Toni Morrison

As a reader, I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain with Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

My reading waxed and waned – distracted and unfocused. I feel bad because there is no question that Beloved is an important book, and one that needs careful and close reading.

The story is set in 1873, in Cincinnati, and focuses on Sethe, a former slave, who is living with her daughter, Denver. Moving back and forward in time, we learn about the other members of Sethe’s family, that have either died or are missing. Much of the story details their circumstances – their time as slaves, some of which was spent on a farm known as Sweet Home; time as captives; and their escape from slavery. The historical elements of the story (and I don’t doubt the accuracy) are absolutely horrific.

While the book could be described as ‘historical fiction’, it is also a horror story. The dedication page sets the scene, reading ‘Sixty Million and more’ (referring to those and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade). But within the first few pages, we learn of a vengeful ghost that haunts Sethe’s house. As the story unfolds, we discover how the ghost came to be.

It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.

Morrison’s writing is dense – loaded with meaning, complex emotions and historical details. A large section devoted to the capture of slaves was described so meticulously that there were times when I had to lay the book down. And even in the sections where life is bearable for Sethe and her family, Morrison includes gentle reminders that the past is always nipping at our heels –

Later, when he saw pale cotton sheets and two pillows in her bedroom, he had to wipe his eyes quickly, quickly so she would not see the thankful tears of a man’s first time. Soil, grass, mud, shucking, leaves, hay, cobs, seashells – all that he’d slept on. White cotton sheets had never crossed his mind.

I need to emphasise the power of Morrison’s writing – it seemed as if every sentence was a ‘quotable quote’ but the one that I kept circling back to, because it represented so much of what the book said (and remains relevant to marginalised people today), was this –

…schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined.

I will revisit this book in the future. Perhaps it will be less frightening the second time. In the meantime, things to follow-up –

3/5 I’m really not good with horror.

At Sweet Home, the slaves eat baked sweet potato.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 19): Belfast 14°-20° and Melbourne 6°-12°.

20 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I love her work, however this was my first read of hers, and I read it when I was a teenager and found it hard to get into, I’ve always meant to go back and read it, as I haven’t found that with any of her others, Sula and Love are my favourites.

    • I will read more by Morrison. I think I would have found this a bit bewildering as a teen – the political/ historical commentary would have been okay but I never read any horror or gothic novels and I suspect that element would have thrown me! I did read a review on Goodreads that said something like “You can keep your Stephen King, Beloved is the ultimate American horror story”!

  3. I remember a couple of lines from this novel though I read it well over a decade ago. I read it twice. I remember the opening line, and this line (which I may not have quite right but it’s the sense that I remember – the line goes something like, “the day’s serious business of beating back the past”. This is such a powerful book (and one I referred to in my review of Marie Munkara’s Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea.)

    • Interestingly, I marked a few passages that related to the passing of time/ living with your history – so much in this book to think about although I keep circling back to ideas around inherited trauma (which I have read about mostly in relation to the Holocaust, in novels such as Lily Brett’s Lola Bensky). I actually have a non-fiction book in my reading stack at the moment, Trauma Trails by Judy Atkinson, which considers generational trauma within Indigenous communities – will review when I get to it!

  4. I read this about 20 years ago & really should revisit it. I’m going through a reading slump at the moment which almost never happens to me so I know exactly what you mean about not keeping your end of the bargain!

    • I’m sure it’s one of those books that will always remain relevant (sadly) – although it’s ‘historical’, it also speaks to the current situation for many people.

  5. I must say you’ve written a wonderful review despite not feeling that you gave your all to the book! I was blown away by this when I read it a couple of years ago and, quite honestly, rarely a day goes by when I don’t find myself thinking of it, as news on both sides of the Atlantic shows that we haven’t been able to advance much as a species even yet. I wonder if you’ll also find your opinion of it developing as time passes…

    • Thank you. There are parts of this story that I am sure will stay with me. In fact, it is already ‘replaced’ (not that you replace books in your memory) books such as The Color Purple. It is a book that I will revisit. I didn’t know that it was based on a true story when I read it, so would like to re-read with that in mind.

    • Given that Morrison reads her own work as audiobooks, could be one to look out for when you’re driving. I reckon Beloved would require careful listening though – the story does jump around a bit but it is more that her sentences are strangely complex…I can’t quite put my finger on why, short of describing the book as ‘dense’.

  6. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – from Where Am I Now to Growing Up Asian in Australia | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  7. I honestly have yet to read anything by Morrison but I’ve heard this is the one to read. I had NO idea it was a horror! I’m a bit of a horror nut so I might just have to try this one out sooner rather than later.

    • Your standard for horror might be different to mine! I said ‘horror’ in reference to two things – the actual, lived horror of slaves (the detail was graphic), and secondly the ‘ghost’.

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