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December 17, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | December 17, 2008 |

After beginning the first chapter of A Mercy, Toni Morrison’s newest novel, I immediately regretted signing up for the review. The opening pages are full of the most difficult aspects of Morrison’s prose, which tortured me as an undergrad. The stream-of-conscious narration is confusing and plunges the reader immediately into a story that clearly has a long and complex history. The opening lines were enough to rattle my already-harried brain, despite the innocuously easy first sentence:

Don’t be afraid. 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. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog’s profile plays in the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain…If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron.

Oh brother, I thought. Here we go again. Flashbacks of all-night reading sessions flooded my mind, and had I not undertaken to review A Mercy for Pajiba, it is more than likely that I wouldn’t have finished it. Fortunately that wasn’t the case, for then I would never have known the beauty of the ending and how it changes all that came before.

Thankfully, the second chapter is much easier, moving as it does from the perspective of Florens, a lovesick, sixteen-year-old slave, to that of her master, Jacob Vaark. Not only does perspective shift with the second chapter, but time does as well, returning us eight years earlier to the day Vaark received Florens as payment for a debt. With this shift in time, background is added that begins to clarify the confusion provoked by the novel’s opening pages.

Over the course of the novel, the complex web that connects these people is refined and clarified, and once things are underway, the plot moves quickly and smoothly. Things get a little thick when Florens narrates, but thankfully she doesn’t all that often. Many characters lend their voices to the novel, and most of them are fairly easy to understand.

A Mercy is set in the America of the 1680s, a dangerous time for everyone, male or female, slave or free. As the novel progresses, other characters bring the New World to life, and each struggles to survive in the face of the wilderness that surrounds them. While it’s true that Jacob and his male counterparts face extreme adversity in eking out an existence in this strange and unaccommodating world, it is the women who suffer the most. In addition to Florens, several other women add perspective to the novel, and each proves that no woman is truly free, regardless of color or station.

There’s Rebekka, Vaark’s wife; Lina, a dependable servant who is also Rebekka’s closest friend; Sorrow, an odd girl whose dreamy ways make her a poor slave; and Florens’ mother. As Morrison makes clear, all women in this world are at the mercy of the men in their lives; without them, these women are as good as lost. (One might argue they are lost with them, as well.) As one character notes, “To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.”

Women, at once both strong and weak, are at the forefront of A Mercy; the nature of women runs parallel to the nature of slavery, an issue that lies at the heart of the novel. Slaves come in many forms, and not all wear chains. Morrison makes clear that those who are willing slaves suffer a worse fate than those who are forced, as it is possible to keep one’s soul free while the body is chained. Morrison rightly asserts that “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”

Ultimately, A Mercy is much more accessible than some other Morrison novels I’ve encountered. By the time the novel reaches its end, the story has come full-circle. All questions have been answered; all confusions clarified. A Mercy is moving and profound; however, for all the beauty of its ending, A Mercy is not an uplifting read.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison / Jennifer McKeown

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