In the world of American literature, Beloved reigns supreme. Famous authors consider Toni Morrison's bestseller to be a masterpiece. It is taught in universities all over the world. Oprah Winfrey made a movie of it. But is this one of those cases where the hype is just too much? Is Beloved really this good? I've finished reading it and I can happily review it for you.
Beloved is concerned with the haunting presence of slavery over a black woman in Ohio after the Civil War. This haunting presence takes the form of a mysterious girl who shows up at Sethe's door one day, a mysterious girl who may or may not be Sethe's deceased third child. The arrival of this girl disrupts Sethe's small family, made up of the youngest child Denver, and a fellow former slave Paul D who has taken to Sethe. But who is this girl and what does her arrival mean?
It's obvious to see what Morrison is preoccupied with by the first twenty pages. This is a novel concerned with memory and our relationship to the past. The horrific crime of slavery is personified with a literal ghost that haunts the main characters of this novel. The mystery of who is the girl is completely peripheral to the unraveling of the characters' memories.
A lot has been said about the structure of the novel. Like the last book I reviewed, Possession, Beloved is a structuralist's dream. Alan Moore couldn't have created a more beautiful artifice upon which to hang a plot. Beloved works like a spiral almost - we're given bits of information about events. This revelation works in a circle, going back and revealing more about each event, going deeper in detail each time, until we get to the heart of Sethe and her story.
Even if this novel just had the fine structure, I would have liked it. But we're treated to Morrison's sumptuous prose as well. Her sentences are lush and descriptive; her similes and metaphors are ingenious.
A perfect example of this is the address of the house in which the present day action happens. The number of the house is 124. This number visually emphasizes the missing third child by omitting the number three. That's absolutely genius.
Another way that Morrison reinforces her themes is through the characters' speech. These are former slaves who aren't very well educated. Sometimes they make errors. One of these errors is extremely significant. Instead of saying "remember", Sethe says "rememory" which perfectly highlights the cyclical nature of the story. You have memory, and you have rememory, where you revisit the past atrocities and crimes committed against you.
The ghost of slavery looms over this entire novel. The reader is bombarded with images and details of the awful things these poor folk have put up with. The major event of the plot is a very bloody crime.
Spoiler warning for the next paragraph. Don't read this unless you want the entire novel ruined for you
Beloved is a Greek tragedy almost. At the centre is Sethe's murder of her third child. Faced with the possibility of her children going into slavery, Sethe chooses to take their lives, to show them the mercy they won't get while in chains. She only successfully kills the one, but that crime haunts her figuratively and literally for the rest of her life. In Greek drama, murder of kin is the most heinous of all crimes, with the Furies chasing you until the ends of the earth because of it. Murder of kin reverberates through generations with Greek tragedy. Morrison does her own version of this by highlighting the three generation of women in this house, and how the murder echoes through them. It is a brilliant effect.
This revelation is revealed slowly and methodically, and when it is finally shown to the audience it is with a sharp strong shock, like the act itself. Morrison's prose floats and stings depending on the content. A perfect synthesis of method and form.
Beloved is a fascinating novel with absolutely marvelous storytelling power. Morrison's skills at structure and sentence construction are masterful. I really enjoyed reading this novel, and I'm glad I did. I'm not necessarily convinced of its dominance of American literature of the past 25 years like TIME Magazine dictates. While the novel is technically impressive, I found the conclusion to be too sparse. We find out what happens after the fact, from a secondary character. This robs the denouement of its emotional impact.
One misstep does not undo a novel. I heartily recommend Beloved for lovers of fine fiction, and students of history. This novel brings to mind Quebec's slogan of "Je me souviens". I will not forget. I will remember. Beloved is deserving of its status in the canon and should be taught in schools.