I’m a greedy reader.
I devour books quickly. I want to know the end. I read fast–too fast–and often go back and reread books a second time. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison, was no exception to my prodigious book appetite, and with just 167 pages, I was able to indulge myself to satisfaction in a short time.
Historically, I’m a major Toni Morrison fan. My love of her craft began with Beloved. I’ve since read all of her novels. When I started A Mercy, I knew I was in for a treat.
Until I got into the book.
I have to admit that for the first 50 pages or so, I felt like I was reading Faulkner. (And some of you may know how I feel about Faulkner.) Multiple character’s stream of consciousness filled the pages, and I grew ever more dismayed. Unwelcome flashbacks of As I Lay Dying came. A Mercy was foggy and dense, and felt purposefully, frustratingly so.
Then the fog began to lift. I could see glimpses through it. Things started coming into focus. It all became clear in the second third of the novel, and then the brilliance began to show. What started as one blabbering sound, began to separate into distinct voices. By the final third of the novel, I was again in awe of Morrison’s power. It snuck up on me this time, but I won’t let it happen again.
I can’t summarize the novel too much without revealing really important things, so I’ll speak in broad strokes. But even in broad strokes, there are spoilers ahead…
Like Beloved, A Mercy deals with mothers and daughters, slavery and freedom, awakenings and dullings, abandonment and acceptance, and hard choices–choices veiled as cruelty that are anything but cruel.
A mother gives away her daughter to a Dutch trader–Jacob Vaark–rather than go with him herself. Jacob marries and starts to build a life with his wife and a strange collection of slaves and free people who become the life and death of each other. What ensues is a wilderness of people and place that cannot be tamed.
Morrison has been a major influence in my writing. It was Beloved–a novel in which a woman murders her baby girl rather than let her be enslaved, who is then haunted by the girl–that stirred in me thoughts of slavery and ghosts. Out of those thoughts, the line that (originally) started my novel, Receive Me Falling, came: “Every slave story is a ghost story.”
A Mercy moved me. There was much about it to praise, but it is this line from the text that haunts me, even after I’ve closed the book:
“Whatever it was, he couldn’t stay there surrounded by a passel of slaves whose silence made him imagine an avalance seen from a great distance. No sound, just the knowledge of a roar he could not hear.” (p. 22)
I recommend this book.