Tuesday, 18 November 2008

A Mercy - Toni Morrison

A Mercy in one sentence:
An impossibly short novel about the birth of America, and a beautiful story of the inimitable strength of maternal love.

The year is 1690, and sixteen year-old Florens is travelling alone across America, on a mission to fetch a blacksmith who can save the life of her mistress. But Florens has fallen in love with this handsome African man who has never been enslaved, and dreams of the life she will lead with him when she finds him at last. The land she travels across is ‘new’ and untamed, and the future of many people are dependent on the success of her mission.

A Mercy is the very short story of a surrogate ‘family’ living in the New World of America. Each comes from a completely different background, yet each has a story to tell: there is Jacob, a self made money-lender who dreams a big future in the new world of infinite possibility; his wife Rebekka, the victim of religious persecution in England, who finds happiness and contentment on the smallholding, but turns to cold religious devotion when Jacob suddenly dies from smallpox; Lina, their native American servant whose tribe was wiped out by a plague of smallpox, yet whose strength holds everything together; young Sorrow, who becomes Complete, rescued from a ship wreck and who now speaks only to her ‘twin’ and awaits the birth of her own daughter; and finally Florens, a slave who can read and write, taken by Jacob as settlement for a bad debt, an act of mercy which inspires everything that follows.

A Mercy is the story of precursors to the birth of a nation, where all which is to come exists in prototype just waiting to burst forth across the new continent. You have the early slave trade, religious paranoia, freedom from persecution, prejudice, fear, opportunity, oppression, unlimited potential, the belief in a new start, ("Jacob raised his eyes to D'Ortega's, noticing the cowardice of unarmed gentry confronted with a commoner. Out here in the wilderness dependent on paid guards nowhere in sight this Sunday. He felt like laughing. Where else but in this disorganized world would such an encounter be possible? Where else could rank tremble before courage?") and the same old mistakes being made. ("For the first time he had not tricked, not flattered, not manipulated, but gone head to head with the gentry. And realized, not or the first time, that only things, not bloodlines or character separated them. So mighten it be nice to have such a fence to enclose the headstones in his own meadow? And one day, not too far away, to build a house that size on his own property?").

In Jacob we have a self made man with a conscience, antagonistic to the closed old world society he has left behind, and uneasy about trading in flesh. All he wants is to grab some land, make money, and live out a quiet life for himself and his family. He is likeable, witty , intelligent, a strong character to hold the other lives together. But Toni Morrison is never going to give the reader what he wants and within forty pages Jacob is dead of smallpox, thus destroying the fragile unity which held his ‘family’ together. For a while it seems his death has left the others floating aimlessly through time, but gradually other voices begin to take hold, and in the disintegration of the family, we get an impression of how fragile this new land remains.

As with most of Toni Morrison’s work, the narrative is complex: with different voices for each character, shifts in time, dialects, and the odd touch of magical realism. I spent the first half trying to work out who each of the characters was, and what was actually happening. This is not easy. In fact, it would be easy to give up without finishing A Mercy. But the brilliance of Toni Morrison is that even while you don’t understand what is happening, the prose is fantastic, and packed full of tasty titbits to interest and inform even the most knowledgeable reader.

There are problems with A Mercy, for perhaps it draws its significance with slightly too broad a brush stroke. The characters, while two dimensional and interesting, are nonetheless slightly caricatured, as though their lives represent the entire struggles of their people. While this is not inherently a bad thing, the linkages feel a little too forced here. It is also a great shame that Jacob is killed off so early, for although this event drives the dissolution which follows, he is the easiest character to relate to, and with him gone, for a while it is difficult to distinguish between the other voices.

But at its heart, A Mercy, like Beloved before it, is a story of the bond between a mother and daughter, now split apart, and their desire for freedom. This may not always be apparent until the last chapter, but in the end, it is the clearest message which comes shining through. Toni Morrison recently came here for a talk and to read from this novel, and at the end she took the decision to read the last two pages. Sitting there listening to her read, I felt a tear pricking at my eyes. The final message is a beautiful one, delivered from a mother to a daughter, across who knows how much time and space:

"I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He said yes.
It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is an evil thing.
Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mae."

7 out of 10

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