This novel by the author, Toni Morrison, is one that opened up a different world for me. My acquaintance with black-fiction began with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, followed by glimpses from Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart.
This book, however was my first glimpse into the contemporary world of the now liberated peoples of Africa. It was no longer a look at tribal life, or an outsider’s point of view of a wrongly-alienated territory and people. “Beloved”, published in 1987, was a blatantly in-depth narrative of the psychological, sociological and physical after-effects of slavery.
The novel begins with:
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.”
It then proceeds in a stream-of-consciousness narrative bringing events and people from the past, present and future to add to and complete the tale in the next 324 pages. The tale is divided into three parts.
The first part, which is also the longest, recounts why 124was spiteful. As it turns out, the mother of four, named Sethe, had killed one of her baby daughters before the white masters could come and enslave them all again. For this she went to prison with her youngest child, Denver, and was tagged for life as a child murderer.
The relief at having managed to keep all of her children and set herself free with that one act blinds her to the impact it has on her children. The murdered baby’s ghost begins to haunt 124, but the residents are not horrified or surprised by it. In this way the author turns the novel into a gothic, magic-realistic account, where the residents of 124 live with the vengeful baby’s spirit as if it was completely ordinary.
As the residents dwindle down to two characters, we are introduced to Paul D, who shows a different angle to horrors of slavery, as compared to Sethe’s domestic, pregnant stuggles. Paul D is one of five bothers from the “Sweet Home” where the elder generation had been formerly enslaved. When Sethe’s husband is nowhere to be found, and is doubted to have survived the escape, Paul D moves in with Sethe and Denver and kicks out the ghost of the baby.
Some blissful weeks follow during which, Denver becomes aware of her loneliness, Paul D learns to love the woman of his dreams and Sethe notices the shadows of three people holding hands. This is when Beloved enters. She is accepted into 124 out of empathy. It is only Denver, at first, who links the girl to her murdered sister and the word “Beloved” written on her tombstone.
Beloved then takes on many forms. For Denver, she is the companion she’d always wanted, to push away the loneliness. She becomes protective of Beloved in case her mother might lash out and kill her again, only to watch as Beloved slowly drains the life out of Sethe. For Sethe, the girl is her chance at redemption for her past sin, a second chance, a sign that God understood and forgave her.
Part two describes 124 as “loud”. It contains monologue-chapters describing what I going on inside each of the main character’s heads. We read into Denver’s innocent, lonely mind, ready to serve and protect her family, despite them beginning to ignore her very existence. We witness Sethe slowly descending to insanity, unable to stop thinking up excuses and reasons for what she had done- unable to forgive herself and letting Beloved drain her in order to punish herself.
We also have one single chapter with Beloved’s monologue. Compared to the others, her thoughts are incomplete. There are no full stops, just run-on sentences, or simple phrases to describe emotion and the queer thought processes that alienate her from the apparently more human sister and mother.
Part three begins with “124 was silent.” I shall not describe what exactly this part holds as that would require giving out spoilers.
The book ends on what one could describe as a beautifully horrific note. There is no doubt why Toni Morrison deserved that Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on this book.
Recommended for: those who enjoy classics, who like to read books that make you think, who love a challenge and adore Gothicism and magic-realism