Beloved by Toni Morrison
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Genre: Historical fiction / Magical Realism
Setting: US (Ohio/ Kentucky)
Rating: 5 Stars
Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison. (Source: Good reads)
In 1856, an enslaved and heavily pregnant African-American woman, Margaret Garner, escaped from a Kentucky farm with her husband and three children to free state, Ohio. When slave catchers eventually caught up with them, in an act of bravery, or madness, depending on how you look at it, she kills her two year old daughter by slitting her throat with a knife; and is prepared to kill herself and the other children rather than allow them to be returned to the horrors of slavery. This real life story of Margaret Garner is the inspiration behind Morrison’s heartbreaking novel – Beloved.
Viscerally moving from past to present and back, and narrated using flashbacks, Beloved follows the life of Sethe, who much like Garner, is an enslaved pregnant woman who flees a Kentucky farm to Ohio to join her mother in law, Baby Suggs and her three children who she had sent off ahead of her. She delivers another girl along the way and names her Denver. When she eventually arrives as 124 Bluestone Rd, beaten, broken and ailing, she briefly finds peace in having all her children with her and the warmth of Baby Suggs. But this tranquillity only lasts 28 days before the slave catchers catch up with her pushing her kill her daughter than have them captured and returned. This becomes a turning point for the narrative.
“The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway.”
In the characters’ recollections, we learn of the harrowing and devastating life of Sethe as a slave and her escape. We also learn of Paul D and why he now has a tobacco tin in the place his heart used to be. And this is by far the most heartbreaking thing you will read in a long time. Sethe and Paul D both struggle with remembering and allowing themselves back in those spaces that they thought long buried – spaces where a slave woman did not have the luxury of being a mother or loving anything because it would be taken away in minutes. Loving anything, least of all children you birthed was a tragedy. Where your owners decided who you slept with and your body was only seen as a slave birthing factory, where men were so deprived they resorted to sleeping with animals.
“Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one.”
This is however not just another slavery story but a poignant reflection on the trauma of it, the long term psychological effects on self and family and the tragedy of memory. There are ghosts in the narrative, the ghost of Beloved, the slain child, but also the ghosts of the past ravaging their present, holding fort and refusing to let go. Morrison characterisation is flawless and multidimensional. None solely painted as good or evil but as humans capable of good and evil and I loved that.
"That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up."
I’ll be first to admit though that this is not an easy read, it is intense and can be difficult to understand. It took me a long time to get through it because I had to re-read chapters, but I assure you it is worth every single page and every re-read. A masterpiece that perfectly weave together a story of pain and violence, and of triumph and love.