Beloved by Toni Morrison
Publisher: Plume, 275 pages
What it’s about:
Set in the south in the years before and after the Civil War, Beloved tracks the ravages of oppression across one matriarchal line—that of Baby Suggs, Sethe, Denver, and their sons and lovers. The novel depicts in unflinching narrative the horrors that slavery wreaks on individuals and families. There are chain gangs, routinized torture, and callous indifference. We know, for instance, that Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, is killed during a slave raid.
Sethe escapes to Ohio and moves in with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs who was deeded the house at 124 Bluestone after she was freed. Sethe and her daughter Denver have been living in Baby Sugg’s house for eighteen years when Paul D., one of the men from the plantation shows up and begins a life with Sethe.
Soon, the venomous spirit of Beloved emerges from the waters “breathing shallow” like the first primordial creature to venture onto land. The ghostly Beloved leaves fingerprints, turns over slop jars, breaks mirrors, and terrorizes the inhabitants. As Sethe muses, “Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?” Once she adjusts to a woman’s form, Beloved taunts her mother’s lover and torments her mother’s soul.
Yet hope resides at 124 Bluestone Road. As Sethe’s tale circles closer to the terrible moment of revelation, the narrator chronicles the characters’ journey toward emotional evolution. The sage Paul D. nudges Sethe towards her redemption, saying, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four.”
What I thought:
If you forced me at knife point to describe this novel in one word, that word would be astonishing. Or maybe devastating.
Beloved is the grandame by which other ghost novels will be judged. Note: It is possible to read Beloved with an alternate interpretation, one in which no ghost exists. But why would you?
Morrison takes the reader on a journey, circling down into the past in a series of memories and relived experiences until the final, bitter reveal that gives context to Sethe’s past. It’s like looking at a beautiful mosaic one piece at a time until you can step back to see the complete art form. This book will challenge you as much for its fragmented storytelling as for its searing images, but it is a story you will never forget.
Beloved is not easy to read, not just because of its unique plot circle. It’s not easy to understand on a visceral level a tragic part of American history. Yet the author’s style of writing is breathtaking. It’s deceptively simple, the kind of storytelling you might listen to for hours sitting around a campfire. One sentence flows into the next with a hypnotic beauty.
There are those who hated this book. But I loved it. And I’m not alone. Beloved won many literary prizes including the coveted Pulitzer.
The eponymous ghost is born of a mother’s tragic response to the depravity of slavery and serves as an anti-legacy that will haunt the reader long after the final word leaps from the page: Beloved.
If you enjoyed this review and would like more supernatural suggestions, please check out my anthology 31 Ghost Novels to Read Before You Die.