Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Mercy by Toni Morrison (a review)

A Mercy
3.5 out of 5: This concise novel is set in early colonial America when the concept of slavery was separated from race and where a few privileged landowners owned the labor of slaves and indentured servants of all races. The story examines what it means to be free and unfolds slowly in chapters told from the alternating viewpoints of several characters, including both landowners and their laborers. Among the most striking and attractive elements of this book are its descriptions of early, unspoiled America as it compared to the England the colonists left behind. From the perspective of one landowner:
Rain itself became a brand-new thing: clean, sootless water falling from the sky. She clasped her hands under her chin gazing at trees taller than a cathedral, wood for warmth so plentiful it made her laugh, then weep, for her brothers and the children freezing in the city she had left behind.
Most characters get just one chapter in which to tell their stories, and the resulting patchwork effect leaves the reader to fill in the significant gaps. All of the action takes place within a couple days and only comes to a head at the very end of the book. Everything else leads up to this event, and this severe distillation and compression results in a kind of allegory rather than a conventional novel. Some of the characters even lack names and are meant to represent ideas. The minimalism of this novel is powerful but lacks emotion. A Mercy is a book of ideas, not people.

Morrison's prose is, at times, beautifully poetic:
[The fog] was sun fired, turning the world into thick, hot gold. Penetrating it was like struggling through a dream.
At other times, the oblique language seems needlessly affected:
How long will it take will he be there will she get lost will someone assault her will she return will he and is it already too late? For salvation.
A Mercy is stylistically and structurally interesting but the overall effect is a bit academic and sterile. Critics will like this book but readers may be disappointed by its inscrutability, which sometimes appears to elevate form over function.


Anonymous said...

This was a really excellent review. I'm working my way through a Morrison right now (Song of Solomon) and enjoying it, but I think if there were large segments of writing like that oblique example you gave, I would hate it an awful lot. I just don't get why authors do things like that!

S. Krishna said...

Hmm...I haven't decided whether I want to read this one or not. Thanks for the review!

Serena said...

I have not read much morrison, but this doesn't seem like the first one to start with.

Mathieu said...

I've just begun to read it in english bcs I think the original version is better than the french version. At first, I appreciate her style. Thanks for the review. I am going to finish it.