Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison..
It is impossible to do justice to a novel as complex and wonderful as this in one blog post, especially as I don't want to spoil the story for you. This quite rightly is considered a "Great American novel" and I can only touch on the impact it had on me. Beloved is not an easy read, partly because it deals unflinchingly with slavery and partly because of its structure which moves backwards and forwards in time and between characters, but it is absolutely worth the effort. I am lucky that I can read relatively quickly, which meant I was able to keep the story threads in my head and so did not have too much problem following the story. It seemed to me that this was a book that could not work with a linear story structure. By layering the revelation of the circumstances of the baby's death, we get differing viewpoints until we focus in on Sethe's experience and the shock does not overwhelm us, and we can begin to grasp how a mother might do the unthinkable.
How can we understand a woman "losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit out like a fishbone", whose value is seen in terms of being a broodmare, for whom love of children, men or anything is dangerous because they can be snatched away or killed at any time? How can we understand this - and yet Toni Morrison helps us to begin to understand. As in the description above the book is often described as a story about slavery and yet it is more than that: it is unflinching about what slavery does to all involved, but it is also about women and women's love.
The book is also a brilliant ghost story. If ever there was a child who has a right to be a poltergeist then the anonymous baby is that child. Just when everything seems to be beginning to come good for Sethe, a young woman arrives who gives her name as Beloved, which is also the description on the gravestone. Is she the baby come back to life as the adult she would have been had she lived?
In lesser hands this book could have been full of anger about the abomination of slavery, it could have been simplistic in its portrayal, but it isn't: it is humane and complex. All the main characters in the book are beautifully drawn. Morrison doesn't portray the black people in the book as "good guys" but as human beings -flawed and damaged. As for the whites in the book she does show their appalling cruelty, but she also shows white people who helped the escapees. Again these people are complex, they too have flaws - a paternalistic attitude. The exception to this is the poor white girl, who despite talking in the language of racism (which of course is all she knows) responds to Sethe as a woman, saving Sethe's life and delivering Sethe's baby.
I cannot review this book without talking about the writing styles in the book. I have seen some readers' reviews which criticize Morrison's use of different voices, this they felt made the book difficult to read. I didn't find that to be the case, even though I am a British white middle-class female and so would be expected to have difficulties with prose written in the voice of an uneducated Southern black slave. It took a bit of getting used to, but I found it relatively easy. The only bit that caused me to falter was the semi-poetry used by Beloved to talk about her past (in the land of the dead? on a slave ship? confined to a house?) but that has to be unclear and impressionistic.
Another criticism leveled at the book is that the characters are not sympathetic, that the reviewer did not identify or like them. This seems to be a very narrow view of what is required in a book. Why should you like the main character? Why should you entirely empathize with them?
And so finally I come to my usual question about is this magic realism and if so what can we learn from it. The answer is yes, it is. The ghost element in the book is never resolved. You are given a rational alternative to Beloved's identity, but you are never told if it is true. In fact the book seems to suggest that the ghost explanation is the right one, something that Toni Morrison supports in the BBC interview (see link below). It is often said of magic realism that it is a literary form which gives expression to the story of the oppressed - never is the more the case than in Beloved.