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Beloved

September 23, 2009

Deep, dark, and rich, in a chocolate torte laced with cyanide sort of way.

I picked it up because Amazon.com said people who bought Edgar Allen Poe also bought this, but I was still expecting more of a historical novel than the terror ride of my life. It’s 1873 and Sethe is an ex-slave. She lives all alone in Cincinnati with her daughter, Denver, the only child she has left. Her two sons have run away from home and her older daughter is dead. During the book, she’s haunted by the past in every meaning of the word.

Paul D, who used to be a slave on the same farm as Sethe, arrives on their doorstep one day. Denver resents that they’re attracted to each other. They think Sethe’s husband died trying to escape the farm, but nobody knows for sure. Just to make matters worse, then a mysterious young woman with no wrinkles in her skin shows up, calling herself Beloved.

When Sethe’s daughter died eighteen years before, Sethe didn’t have enough money for a headstone. She was able to barter sexual favors with the engraver for just one word. Not enough for Dearly Beloved. Just Beloved.

Is Beloved the evil ghost of the dead little girl? Has Sethe finally lost her mind? Both? You just don’t know, even after it’s all over.

The best part of the prose is not what Morrison says, but what she leaves unsaid.

But none of that had worn out his marrow. None of that. It was the ribbon. Tying his flatbed up on the bank of the Licking River, securing it best he could, he caught sight of something red on its bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon tied around a curl of wet wooly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp.

Deliciously terrifying.

Literary lessons learned:

  • If you’re Toni Morrison, you can handle a book that is more flashback than present day. She’s Toni Morrison.
  • Magical realism: it’s not just for Latin America anymore.
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