“A Mercy” by Toni Morrison
By Toni Morrison
176 pages. Audio: 6 hours and 26 minutes
Toni Morrison set out to rewrite the literary canon. After winning every major literary prize including the Nobel Prize for Literature, I think we can say the mission is accomplished. As an African American woman, her place in the American literary pantheon is very secure.
I am guessing the text she will be most remembered for is Beloved, a brilliant novel which manages to be experimental in form and gut-wrenching in content. Yet many readers (including me, I suppose) find the book ... difficult, for lack of a better term. So I want to suggest that a better entree to her work is her later short novels. At a time in her career when her reputation was already established beyond question, she has written four excellent short novels: Love, A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child.
Of the four, my favorite is A Mercy. The other three are set in the 20th century but this one returns to the days of slavery. It actually goes back to the 1680s, almost 200 years before the setting of Beloved. As usual, I will resist a neat plot summary because to say almost anything is to say too much. But as is so often the case in her writing, people will be making very difficult choices without being able to anticipate all the consequences. Will an act of mercy really turn out to be merciful?
Morrison writes so brilliantly and compellingly that we might not immediately notice how often she is describing sordid actions. But it is never pain porn, and she has a unique ability to appeal to our minds and our hearts. It is never sentimental but always full of pathos.
She is a master in withholding information that will prove crucial to the plot. We think we might know what’s going on but, little by little, she gives us more and more information, and the story turns out to be something quite different than what we thought it was going to be.
I want to suggest that you read Morrison not only because she is a great writer. She is actually something much more than that. She is a great soul. It is hard for me to imagine a writer who is more human and humane than she is. In describing the experience of African American women and slaves, she touches something of our common humanity, though the book’s setting is distant historically and, for most of us, also distant experientially. Is it possible for a writer to make you feel unbearably sad and uplifted at the same time?
I would love for my preaching to exhibit the kind of humanity that her writing does. I would call upon that well used example that her writing is like the musical form of the blues--it creates sadness, an ache, and longing while simultaneously making you want to hear more while you tap your foot.
If you haven’t read Morrison, it is time. Read these short novels and then go tackle Beloved. You will not only be better read but you will probably be a better person.
Sadly, since this review was written, Morrison has passed away.