Beloved – Toni Morrison
Sethe, a former slave, lives alone with her grown daughter, Denver, her two sons having run away years ago. Although their house once served as a way-station for escaped slaves, they now live in isolation except for the haunting presence of the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter. One day, an old friend, Paul D, arrives at the house. His presence drives out the ghost, and although Denver is reticent about the arrangement, Sethe hesitantly welcomes the possibility of creating a family. Shortly after, another girl mysteriously appears at the house who claims not to have any people or place. She merely calls herself Beloved, the same name of the ghost daughter that had been haunting the house since the time of her death. Sethe, Denver, and Paul D are at first drawn to the daughter, sister, or lover that has entered their lives, but as Beloved’s presence grows stronger and more vital, their individual lives begin to unravel. With no other option than to confront the horrific past that Beloved brings with her physical presence, the individuals and relationships contained within the house start to crumble as they struggle to relate to this familiar stranger.
“Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, tells the story of heart-wrenching loss and desperate attempts to avoid further pain, further loss, or, if possible, both. Morrison alternates narration between characters, focusing on different histories and relationships and how they intersect. She also jumps between the current situation, past events, and memories, showing how the past leads precisely to the present. The variety of perspectives and timelines contributes a degree of uncertainty to the story, emphasizing how individual perceptions are limited by their singular understanding, but also legitimizing multiple interpretations of the same situation. At the center of the story, the characters each struggle to reconcile their own histories with their present circumstances. Morrison’s characters suffer unfathomable pain and loss, resulting in actions and reactions that can only be deemed understandable considering the circumstances. Blunted emotions, distant relationships, and fierce independence are all means by which the characters protect themselves because suffering is always hiding just around the corner. “Beloved” offers a view of human strength and perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles that is simultaneously devastating and inspirational.
This book was difficult for me to get into at first because I was confused by the story. I almost felt as though Morrison was making assumptions about my prior knowledge of the characters and their histories, and so I seemed to be missing crucial aspects of the story in the first few chapters. Eventually I realized this was not the case and that those crucial points would be revealed later in the novel. I would recommend reading this book when you have ample time to make progress (like a cross-country plane flight) so that the various timelines and perspectives come together to form a cohesive whole. Confusion aside, I loved this book. Yes, it was violent and depressing, but it gives voice to a part of history that often goes unacknowledged. Highly recommended.