A Mercy by Toni Morrison - review by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker

Mother Hunger

A Mercy


Chatto & Windus 176pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

‘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

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