Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.”

It speaks to Morrison’s skill that a tale about such harrowing circumstances is still as tender as this one. She’s the kind of writer who could find beauty in the reflections of a pool of blood.

A house with a dead baby’s footsteps echoing through its halls sits next to a river. An ex-slave, Sethe, and the remnants of her family try to make sense of the United States after the Civil War, and struggle against poverty, prejudice, and their own memories. Beloved by Toni Morrison is difficult to read at times, due to the prose’s density and the painful subject matter, but it’s harrowing and heartfelt, and deserves patience.

I’m going to make this book sound very serious, but please don’t think I’m using serious as interchangeable for dry or boring; this is an interesting and occasionally warm book. It’s just a good idea for someone picking this up to go in with the knowledge that their emotions are about to be beaten with a pipe wrench.

This is a mournful book which is still extremely engaging. Hope is something these characters can’t afford to have, and we watch as they struggle to navigate a “free” world they never expected to experience. They’ve been let down too often before to risk the pain of disappointment again, so they approach life like it’s contained in a glass case on a wobbly mantelpiece: nice to look at, but not something to get attached to. It will fall and shatter eventually. The cruelty they’ve suffered—on both a personal and institutional level—leaves scars, both literal and figurative.

The story here is gripping, despite that the writing at a sentence level blends between first- and third-person, and the plot structure is (purposefully) as fractured and confused as the the minds of its characters. It’s still a joy to read, somehow; like any great story of tragedy, the pathos feels almost tangible.

When you’ve never seen a house or a happy home, how do you make a life for yourself? Slavery destroyed the humanity of the people it ensnared, and Morrison offers no easy answers. Beloved stares penetratingly into how racism and slavery have created a cycle of pain that will continue for generations. There are difficult questions here but no easy answers, and it’s a better story than most because of that.

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