A Mercy by Toni Morrison - review by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker

Mother Hunger

A Mercy


Chatto & Windus 176pp £15.99

‘Ordinary people in an extraordinary time’ proclaims the back cover in block capitals. This tale of everyday folk in late seventeenth-century Virginia and Maryland may surprise those who have not previously read Toni Morrison. ‘Don’t be afraid’, it opens. ‘My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark – weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more – but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.’ Others, familiar with this writer, may find the first page of A Mercy rich in self-parody, while aficionados will abandon themselves joyfully to its weird, inconsequent stream of consciousness, imagery and oddity. Visual oddity – ‘when a dog’s profile plays in the steam of a kettle’; and linguistic oddity – ‘the wicked of how it got there’ or ‘if a peahen refuses to brood I read it quickly’. Who is this giddy narrator talking to? What is going on? We are none the wiser until page 97, which is too long to wait. By then, some will have put the book aside in dudgeon. It is insulting for a reader to be dragged into a threatening and fathomless quagmire and left to sink or swim. The phrase ‘a minha mae’ occurs from time to time; one assumes it means some sort of witch. At last one deduces it is Portuguese for ‘my mother’, but it’s not even printed in italics. Did you know ‘a’ is the Portuguese for (feminine) ‘the’? Well, I didn’t. 

The second chapter initially bodes better. The third-person narrative comes as a relief as it describes one Jakob Vaark wading ashore. ‘Fog, Atlantic and reeking of plant life, blanketed the bay and slowed him.’ Fabulous. But as Jakob continues his complex journey to a luncheon engagement, hiring a horse, considering the turbulent history of the times, freeing a trapped raccoon, reflecting on the offensiveness of Popery and the vileness of the slave trade, it becomes clear that Morrison is ill at ease. She cannot handle straight narrative. The writing is stiff, over-explanatory, often clumsy and astonishingly amateur. ‘Upon entering this privately-owned country, his feelings fought one another to a draw.’ He is dazzled by his host’s mansion: ‘He had heard how grand it was, but could not have been prepared for what lay before him.’ A decent man, an independent farmer and entrepreneur, he returns to his wife and home in the North fired by ambition for a great house of his own, to be financed by dubious dabbling in the sugar trade. ‘A remote labor force in Barbados’ need not trouble his conscience. With him travels a young child, part payment for a debt – the slave-born Florens, entrusted to him by her anguished mother.

Time moves on, the house is built, but Jakob cannot live in it for suddenly he is dead, taken by smallpox. His wife, too, lies stricken and she sends sixteen-year-old Florens to fetch a mysterious blacksmith who once healed the crazed slave Sorrow from a plague of boils. Florens loves the blacksmith, who is a free man, with all that phrase implies. No good can come of it. But her journey and return form the thread which binds the loose ends of the novel, woven from stories of each member of the household: Rebekka, the mistress, outcast from England; Lina, a native American servant or slave (I don’t know which; nothing is clear in this book); wild Sorrow with her silver eyes, red hair, and black skin, flung up by the sea; and Florens herself, rejected, as she sees it, by her mother.

We have the story of Jakob too, and of a couple of casual white male labourers. But the real substance is the experiences of the women, whose lives are lived in terms of and for men so entirely that Rebekka can reflect that her strict Baptist neighbours and her former louche and criminal shipmates have ‘everything in common, with one thing; the promise and threat of men’. Yet, with Jakob and Rebekka, the three slave girls know safety and kindness. Florens’s mother had seen Jakob’s decency, his willingness to take her child, as a near-miraculous chance, the mercy of the book’s title. After Jakob’s death, the women realise that their illusory family, forged by companionship and isolation, is lost.

Greater than that sense of familial loss and yearning is their common ‘mother hunger – to be one or have one’. This, more than time, place or circumstance, is the driving force of all their lives. They seek and find and lose mothers and children, calling up memory and ghosts and the unborn, in language that is powerful and poetic, reminiscent of Beloved, Morrison’s great novel, which is set 200 years later but which treats of many of the same themes – slavery and its ‘pathless and terrible terrain’, familial yearning, women’s need for men despite themselves, babies lost and saved, desires unfulfilled and questions unanswered.

But in Beloved there is a consistency of narrative voice beyond the testaments of individuals, which sweeps the reader along, at times overwhelming, but never bewildering. A Mercy reads almost like notes for this earlier work, matching it now and then in power and lyric beauty: ‘Sudden a sheet of sparrows fall from the sky and settle in the trees. So many the trees seem to sprout birds, not leaves at all.’ Or ‘What about the boneless bears in the valley? Remember? How when they move their pelts sway as though there is nothing underneath?’ Such images abound, but these marvels only offset the turgid discomforts of the narrative, the indulgent babbling, the weird modernisms. Sorrow has ‘unbelievable and slightly threatening hair’. Florens, who speaks in inscrutable idiolect (‘I know the claws of the feathered thing did break out on you because I cannot stop them wanting to tear you open the way you tear me’), suddenly remarks in the tone of a millennial social worker: ‘I like her devotion to her baby girl.’

Most maddening of all is a technique which Morrison used also in Beloved; she sets up a scene or a tiny incident and then abandons it, so that the reader is left baffled, plodding trustfully on, referring back, made to feel stupid, then cross, then insensitive for feeling cross. For example, we are suddenly told that Sorrow often goes to the river to talk to her dead baby. There has been absolutely no word of this dead baby and there is no further mention of it for another sixty pages. Morrison does this on purpose, of course. In a new foreword to Beloved she has written: ‘I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population – just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation or defense.’ This works in Beloved where the narrative, natural and supernatural, flows in a grand tidal sweep, but it doesn’t work here in this much shorter book. To make sense of A Mercy you must read it twice; you may not wish to do this. It is a muddle, and despite all its discordant striving its real theme seems to me to hark back again to Beloved and another definition of mercy: ‘Softly, suddenly, it began to snow, like a present come down from the sky. Sethe opened her eyes to it and said “Mercy”. And it seemed to Paul D that it was – a little mercy – something given to them on purpose to mark what they were feeling so that they would remember it later on when they needed to.’ There is the simplicity and the truthfulness, wilfully lost in this new book.

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