Ghost Novel Review: Beloved

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Publisher: Plume, 275 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

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.

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The Right to Write

Barrack Obama isn’t black enough.

You’ve heard that, right?

Amy Tan isn’t Chinese enough.

Maxine Hong Kingston ditto.

Chang-rae Lee isn’t Korean enough.

Picture me, a writer exploring Korean characters and culture, biting my nails.

I can trace four ancestral lines. No doubt my lineage contains the requisite number of horse thieves, courtesans, peasants, warriors and whiners. One line snakes back as far as 1000 CE (thanks for your research, Carolyn and Randy). I am that nondescript blend of Scottish, English, Danish and Swedish.

Alas, not one drop of Korean blood courses through my veins.

I met my first honest-to-goodness Korean in 1974. Korean/Caucasian, actually. Reader, I married him. Clever way to nail one’s source, n’est-ce-pas? Not so fast. For one thing, I wasn’t writing novels then. For another, my husband, adopted and raised as a Swedish American, knew next to nothing about Korean culture. On the upside, he was able to fill in some gaps in understanding of my Swedish roots. (Mention the word glogg, and a faraway gaze fills his eyes.)

I bring this up in the inquiry into the right to write.

When I attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley conference a few years ago, I met with Andrew Tonkovich of the Santa Monica Review to discuss my literary novel The Circle Line, which features a Korean/Caucasian protagonist. Editor Tonkovich informed me that I had no business writing from a non-white character’s point of view, that I was guilty of the worst kind of appropriation.

Listening to the editor’s harsh words, I half expected Dangun, the legendary founder of Korea, to descend from the heavens along with his ursine mother and cleave me in two. I slunk from the meeting wracked with writer’s remorse.

But I didn’t stop. I finished that novel and wrote another, Moonlight Dancer. Once again, Korean culture, not to mention a Korean shaman and ghost, figures prominently in the narrative.

I can’t explain it except to say I write about what speaks to me. Of course, I feel the scary enormity of this task. Do I dare? And how should I presume?

All I can say in my defense is that I work really, really hard. I’ve read research books, scoured historical sites, and traveled throughout Korea. I’ve logged more Korean cities than many Koreans of my acquaintance. I studied the language for years. Yes, language contains a treasure trove of culture clues.

And I’ve talked with experts. On one occasion, as I studied artifacts at The National Folk Museum in Jongno-gu (one of my favorite haunts), a docent approached me and walked me all over the museum, answering every question I posed. What a day that was!

So, we’re left with this question—Do I have the right to write—whatever or whomever I desire? Friend and fellow writer Meera Lester puts it this way, “I think what matters is that you approach your subject with passion and respect.”

I’d love to hear your opinion.

Is it possible there’s a fallacy of generalization at play? Can one writer or one character stand in for an entire culture? No one would question my right to write from a Dane’s point of view, yet everything I know about Danish history I learned from Hamlet.

If I had to define my own true culture? Northern Euro mongrel liberal non-smoker reader baker textile-lover no-cook mom.

I had a character like that once. She was tough to write.

Ghost Novel Review: The Little Stranger

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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

In many ways this book reminded me of Jane Eyre—the retrospective narrator, the gloomy atmosphere, the decaying mansion. Minus, of course, lapses into Dear reader confidences.

Just as Bronte did before her, Waters renders the crumbling mansion’s inhabitants with subtle shifts—Mrs. Ayres, increasingly desperate to maintain the veneer of the landed gentry; Roderick Ayres, desperate to preserve himself inviolate; Catherine Ayres, desperate to keep it together despite a malevolent supernatural presence. And then there’s young maid Betty, the unassuming conduit any poltergeist worth its salt requires. Or does someone else fill that role?

Enter Dr. Faraday to chronicle all.

Waters’ portrayal of the characters’ descent into possession or madness is as painstakingly accurate as Michelangelo’s four year layering of pigment and glaze on the Sistine Chapel portraits. At 528 pages, the book takes nearly as long to read. Alas, Gentle reader, the novel suffers, as so many do, from SMS—Saggy Middle Syndrome.

Yet for all that, the novel is intelligently written, deliciously atmospheric, darkly pessimistic; the doctor narrator more Mr. Rochester than Jane—damaged, despairing and possibly deluded.

What’s in a name?

Pen in Her Hand?

What’s with the name?

This blog’s title is inspired by my favorite quote from the novel Persuasion. Jane Austen’s heroine rejects the claim that history and literature prove women are weak. She insists that historically men wrote those same books as “…the pen has been in their hands.”

Go, Jane!

Not that I claim any more than a gender connection to Austen, but I take up my pen (literally in that I’m one of the few writers I know to actually compose longhand) and work my little bit of ivory.

Will you join me?

If you are interested in novels, ghosts, Korean culture and history, love with a smidge of time shift, or the angst-ridden process of writing and publishing, I invite you to tag along with me.

Thanks for reading. Deb.