Beloved has been called an American masterpiece, telling a story of America from voices that have been repressed for so many years. Toni Morrison is an incredible writer, almost ruthlessly honest, relentlessly sensory. I found this book both upsetting and compelling; such an aching, beautiful world was drawn of the American south in the 1870s, filled with such pure cruelty and suffering. But it is not a story of slavery, or of American liberation, but one of Sethe, her children and family, and the Sweet Home men she knew. Through this individual life, mystery and culture and home are woven in, into the hot, unjust world they live in.
Beloved is another of Margaret Atwood‘s favourite books, the same list that gave me literary experiment that was The Alexandria Quartet. This book however was a totally different experience for me: it was no slog, I compulsively read it, even while saddened by its contents. Unlike the last horror-filled horror-fuelled book I read, the pain here is not excessive but fact, the suffering not to add judicious drama but the reality of a life. There is no shame in accepting your past. It does not define the life however, because family, love, living matters more.
Terrible, unspeakable things happened to Sethe at Sweet home, but 18 years later she has her freedom but is still not free. The baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single world – Beloved – comes into the house in a relentless haunting of not forgetting.
The tale is told in a reflective, fragmentary way. The house known as 124 was spiteful, full of baby’s venom. The women knew it, the children knew it, the home that had been a way station for a whole community became haunted, too full of a ghost who just would not let go. Sethe escaped a life of slavery to make a new home with her family at 124, but it is the ghost who haunts them, the murdered who lost everything, who is at the centre.
We are catapulted into this place without introduction or warning, a deliberate act by Morrison to echo what would often happen to the characters while slaves – snatched from one place to any other, without preparation or defence. It is a nameless house, without delusions of grandeur or homeliness unlike any other false title plantations were given like “Sweet Home” and in this anonymous space the ghost gives it its personality.
But it is a massive canvas this book is set upon, examining the idea of ‘free’ to black women in America in the 1870s. A world where marriage was impossible, inaccessible, illegal, where having children was a long-term profit plan by your owners, where your body was bred with other slaves, or the owner, or the owner son’s. But the slave experience has been made intimate here, the quietude of daily life, the endless act of forgetting.
“Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon – everything belonged to the men who had the guns…So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked up the tiniest starts out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to se the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept…Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia.”
Their environment is drawn simply, perfectly. It is full of the heat of the day, the cold in the bones, the sounds and smells of each season passing. There is a melded religious myth that also pervades, a nod to some form of force that can be kind or cruel, perhaps depending on whether you are kind or cruel yourself.
“A route that took him smack dab through the middle of a cemetery as old as sky, ride with the agitation of dead Miami no longer content to rest in the mounds that covered them. Over their heads walked a strange people, through their earth pillows roads were cut; wells and houses nudged them out of eternal rest.”
It is wordlessly accepted that there is a haunting in 124, that this baby can manifest itself present to fight for the love she thinks was taken away from her. While Sethe is the main actor, Beloved is the centre.
Morrison’s story is full of intellect, force, and a kind of belief-fuelled sensory imagination. Beloved is driven by horror and pain but in a way it does not matter, it is a part of the people whose stories are being told. Morrison has invited readers into a terrain (slavery) formidable and pathless, but propelled by a heroine who represents some kind of unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror, necessity, claiming her own freedom. It is a compelling, quieting book.