A Mercy

A Mercy
by Toni Morrison
Literary fiction. 167 pp.
Knopf. 2008.

flap copy:

A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize–winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.

In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in "flesh," he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, "with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady." Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.

There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who's spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens' mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.

A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.

Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.

It should not take three weeks to read a 165-page book.

I picked this book up because I heard Morrison on the Diane Reams show (which Dec tells me is being rebroadcast today). It sounded interesting to me, and because I'd never read any Morrison before, I thought I'd give it a go. To say I didn't like it would be somewhat of an understatement. Truth be told, the only reason I finished it when I did was because I wanted desperately to finish seventy books this last year.

Here's the deal. It is superbly crafted. Morrison knows how to put words together and create beautiful images. Case in point:
Reverend Father is the only kind man I ever see. When I arrive here I believe it is the place he warns against. The freezing in hell that comes before the everlasting fire where sinners bubble and singe forever. But the ice comes first, he says. And when I see knives of it hanging from the houses and trees and feel the white air burn my face I am certain the fire is coming.
Exquisite language throughout. The use of multiple narrators is executed with absolute precision and mastery. I still didn't like it.

For all of Morrison's grandiose mastery of her craft, I think that she failed to instill a soul in this novel. And so there was little to pull me forward and through the novel, little to help me engage emotionally with the snapshots of characters portrayed. I guess that's my beef with literary fiction in general—why should I waste my time reading an author who is writing for the sake of writing? Now, this is not what other readers and reviewers of Morrison will tell you in their effusive praise of her work. A few are linked below. So if you like this kind of thing, you're going to love A Mercy.

As a note, on Goodreads I gave it two stars. My actual like of the book would have merited one star. However, it's craft merits five stars. So I compromised at two.

Other reviews:
1morechapter | Powell's Books | Book Chronicle

1 comment:

Alisa said...

Congrats on getting all your posts up (and for getting through this). I loved _Beloved_ in high school, but I was a lot more tolerant back then. Now I need more entertainment.