Spellbinding, heartbreaking, terrifying. Morrison’s masterpiece will literally leave you speechless.
Ahh I haven’t written a blog post in a very, very long time so forgive me if my writing is a bit rusty. To be fair, I’m sure anyone trying to write about Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) has a hard time putting this novel into words. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story really is something else. I know I’ve probably said this about 5 times already this year, but this is the best book I’ve read in 2020, possibly ever.
Dedicated to the ‘sixty-million and more’ that died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade, Beloved is set in the years after the American Civil War. Morrison tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver, who’s house near Cincinnati, Ohio, is haunted by the malevolent spirit of Sethe’s dead baby daughter. All that remains of the baby girl is a headstone marked only with ‘Beloved‘, where Sethe could not afford ‘Dearly’. Having been born into slavery, Sethe and her children escaped from Kentucky to Ohio twenty years before the novel begins, but the presence of the past is more alive than ever.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
Beloved is one of those books where, upon finishing, you kind of just have to sit there paralysed for a minute of two, trying to take in what you just read. While you’d place the book somewhere between magical realism and gothic horror, it is ultimately rooted in the inescapable, historical context of the slave trade. It’s this aspect of the novel which might strike you the most shocking, though, as Morrison points out in her essay Playing in the Dark, the looming presence of slavery and ‘Africanism’ is evident and unavoidable in much of white, American literature to date.
The sheer brutality of Sethe’s experiences and memories in Beloved are detailed matter-of-factly by Morrison, who is careful not to sugarcoat or gloss over the lived experiences of slaves for the sake of ‘palatability’ – as was the case with some slave narratives which were commissioned to ‘inspire’ the abolitionist movement. (Or, in order to ‘humanise’ African slaves in the eyes of white people who benefitted from slavery.) From the out, it’s clear that Sethe is far from a ‘sympathetic’ character, rather, she is a woman forced to make choices that few people could comprehend making. Beloved is a gut-wrenching account of motherhood at a point in history where an enslaved woman’s children were not her own in the eyes of the law.
Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.
One thing that struck most when reading Beloved is the jumpy, disjointed narrative. The past and present fold into one another – as we move from Sethe’s house in Cincinnati to the Kentuckian plantation she was enslaved at, Sweet Home, it’s sometimes impossible to tell which is which. This is certainly not a complaint on my part, though. The structure novel reflects the trauma that permeates Beloved entirely. (Sorry I’m being super vague about what or who that trauma is – I just really don’t want to spoil it.) .
I’ve never read anything quite like this book. It is utterly devastating but vitally important. Do yourself a favour a give it a read.