Sunday, November 30, 2008
Toni Morrison/A MERCY
In 1690, a farmer dies of pox. He is survived by the English wife he ordered by mail and by their three servant/slaves: a Native American woman, a white woman, and a black teenage girl. In a brief and characteristically sensual narrative, Toni Morrison creates thumbnail sketches of eight lives brought together in infant America, all products of different desperations. Their interactions are a reimagining of American history at a peculiar formative moment, when slavery and race still had broad definitions, and when social advantages were random and fluid.
I purchased my copy of this book at a reading during which Toni Morrison was asked, "When do your readers disappoint you?" Her answer to this uncomfortable question: "When they expect a quick and happy ending." There should be, she went on, no need for a clean ending. "I like ambiguity and ambivalence in the mind of the reader after the last page." Furthermore, fiction should be "not knowledge but imagination and insight."*
All these things put forth as caveats, I want to treat this review as I would have if I hadn't heard her say those things. This novel is so rich in provocative themes that each section had me itching to know more, more about each character's situation, back story, and character. The chapters are lush and impressionistic, full of Morrison's trademark language, and the characters (from the short glimpses we get of them) are very interesting personalities.
But for the cast of characters and the issues tackled--settlement, slavery, religion, indentured servitude, the elimination of the Native Americans, rape, race, the systematic oppression of females, child loss, to name some--the book was short. Frustratingly, the story lines introduced in the short chapters weren't revisited or explored. As it is, the thumbnail sketches of the characters were a little too thin to to satisfy, and, honestly, a little bit stagnant. In this way, it reminded me of Gentlemen of the Road--a fascinating topic in the hands of a master writer that fails to hit the spot because it is too short and underdeveloped.
I appear to be in the minority on this book, since every review I've read has been nothing short of worshipful. I would still absolutely recommend A Mercy, because it is a tantalizing read. I hope that it will spawn interest in that period of American history and perhaps inspire other period fictions for me to read down the line.