Inspirational author Toni Morrison passed away recently at the age of 88, leaving behind a priceless legacy to literature. Giving a voice to black people and celebrating black history was her mission, achieved with devastating effect through her award-winning writing.
A few days after quitting her day job as an editor to focus on writing full-time, she started her most critically acclaimed novel, Beloved. Following its publication in 1987, it won the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, and the Nobel Prize for literature. From humble beginnings in Ohio during the Great Depression, Morrison’s gift for writing culminated in a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Beloved is set in Cincinnati in 1873, almost ten years after the abolition of slavery. Mother of four Sethe struggles to block out the past having escaped from Sweet Home, the deceptively named farm where she had been a slave. She lives with her daughter, Denver, at number 124, but the independent life she has built balances precariously on a swamp of intolerable memories.
People pass by number 124 in a hurry. A disturbing presence exists there, its childlike tantrums shaking the floorboards. Denver sees a white dress kneeling next to her mother at prayer, its arm wrapped protectively around her waist. Two tiny hand prints appear in a cake. The ghost of Beloved, a baby girl, haunts the house just as surely as Sethe’s mind is haunted by memories buried by the pretence of normality.
She may have physically escaped the farm but she is plagued by traumatic visions of what went on there. One of seven slaves and the only woman, she was heavily pregnant when she ran away, crawling on her hands and knees to reach shelter and determined to live if only to give life to her unborn child.
Beloved is a story of survival in a society seeped in bias. Denver represents the next generation, born free thanks to her mother’s escape but no less impacted by the residue of a system that painted outrageous and dehumanising treatment with a false air of respectability. She lives at a time when things that seem under control are in reality dangerously disordered. The law may have been amended but such change is slow and painful.
The novel explores the precarious nature of freedom, what it means to different people and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children from losing it. The past is not merely a ghost but a real threat and Denver and her mother live in its shadow.
Reading Beloved is a uniquely intense experience. Both deeply unsettling and unapologetically hopeful, the narrative moves seamlessly between the first and third person and gives the reader an insight into the characters’ thoughts and fears.
Morrison’s storytelling is so skilful and the narrative so well-crafted that like Beloved herself, the story is very much alive on the page. Every single word counts and every sentence deserves taking time to savour.
The novel explores what drives people to extreme acts, always encouraging empathy in the reader. Morrison paints with unflinching directness a picture of lives saved and ruined, deftly giving people their own, real voice, not idealised but filled with the contradictions and struggles of survival. Tension builds as the family’s lives slowly unravel, culminating in the revelation of what had happened to Beloved. Guilt and retribution, desire and betrayal, hope and human kindness in adversity are conflicting themes in this powerful and unforgettable story.