“Her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day. . . . Other people went crazy, why couldn’t she?”
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, an escaped slave named Sethe is haunted in the house of her recently deceased mother-in-law. She lives with Denver, the only child she has left, and the angry ghost of the baby she murdered. Throughout the story, Sethe attempts to distance herself from memories of a past filled with fear and slavery, but she cannot free herself. Eventually she must confront her actions, face to face.
When the book begins, Sethe and Denver are being attacked by the presence that haunts their house. Morrison explains how the two of them have been abandoned by friends and family, and are fighting a constant, exhausting battle against this troublesome spirit. Immediately they have the reader’s sympathy, and retain it throughout the novel, even as the horror of the murder Sethe committed is revealed. Morrison presents their pain in such a way that in spite of this murder, the connection between the reader and the characters only grows stronger.
Morrison also has a powerful writing style. Her novel reads like poetry, because she often uses fragments, repetition, and various rhetorical devices to bring the book to life. For example, she begins the novel with personification and a fragment: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Her most striking repetition is towards the end of the book, when the thoughts switch between Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, each claiming “She [Beloved] was mine.”
Yet Beloved can be confusing. It is told from the perspectives of different characters at different periods of time in segments that are rarely placed in chronological order. For example, even though Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, is mentioned as dead within the first few sentences of the book, she still appears throughout. Morrison blends past and present so that her characters’ thoughts evolve into former conversations which then prompt other memories. There is no distinction between then and now. However, if attentive, the reader will be able to navigate through these transitions easily enough.
I read the last half of Beloved in one night because I could not put it down. It is a powerful story and its complexity, rather than detracting from its charm, encourages a second read. However, because of its adult topics, I would recommend this book to older audiences only.