Before “A Mercy,” the latest novel by Toni Morrison, I had never read anything by the celebrated author and professor. It was one of instances where I had always meant to pick up one of her books, but never actually did. It’s one of the holes in my library: Toni Morrison, James Joyce and all of the Russians.
Morrison is one of those iconic American presences “ a Pulitzer Prize winner for her 1988 novel “Beloved,” a Nobel Prize winner in literature, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and an activist. I think I was afraid her works would be too consumed with their own academia and activism to be readable, but, as far as “A Mercy” is concerned, I was wrong.
Is it hard to read? Yes. But that doesn’t make it any less engrossing. The sentences are short and rapid-fire, yet unbelievably dense, lyrical and rich. You need to read slowly to absorb it all, but that’s not a bad thing.
Returning to the theme of slavery, Morrison takes readers to the harsh dawn of the American experience, the late 17th century. Set two centuries before the events of “Beloved,” the country is being forged on the backs of the downtrodden “ women, servants, Indians and slaves “ and the story alternates between these interconnected groups.
It begins with a Maryland plantation slave giving up her daughter to repay her owner’s debt. The young girl, Florens, is sent to live in an isolated northern farm with an Anglo-Dutchman, a relatively humane man that insists he abhors the “most wretched business” of the slave trade, yet profits from it.
In this small world, surrounded by religious zealots “ because what is a story of early America without the religious zealots “ Florens lives within and without of the various women in the farmer’s sphere: his wife, Rebekka; the servant, Lina; and the strange girl, Sorrow. Four women “ one white, one Indian, two black “ all enslaved in their own way.
The novel gives time to each of the women, but it is Florens who is the core of the story. From what I’ve read about “Beloved,” “A Mercy” starts with an opposite act, but follows the same
arc of grief, pain and the quest for survival.
In “Beloved,” an escaped slave woman kills her infant daughter to save her from a lifetime of being owned. In “A Mercy,” a mother in effect sells her daughter into slavery for the hope of a better life. But, what that mother thought was being merciful, instead leaves Florens chasing a specter of abandonment.
“A Mercy” is slim, just 167 pages, but seems without a single superfluous word. The novel is tragic, haunting, but beautiful.
“Jenny Coon Peterson