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 –
- the story is based on the life of Margaret Garner
- there’s an opera!
- there’s a movie (it’s a horror)
- there’s an audiobook, read by Morrison.
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°.