Nobel Prize-winning author explores colonial history
It’s difficult not to read Toni Morrison’s latest novel outside the shadow of Beloved, that other novel about an enslaved girl whose mother makes a heartbreaking choice.
A Mercy is Morrison’s fourth novel since Beloved, which ostensibly won the Ohio-born author the Nobel Prize and was declared “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years” by The New York Times. It’s no wonder Beloved‘s towering reputation colors everything Morrison has written since.
Morrison hasn’t become one of America’s greatest writers by giving readers what they want; her business is giving them something they didn’t know they needed. In this case, that something is a meditation on America before it dreamed of nationhood, told through the stories of early traders, farmers and slaves, of all races. The publicists at Knopf describe A Mercy as “almost like a prelude” to Beloved. It’s important to note from the outset that A Mercy—set in the 17th century (versus Beloved‘s late 1800s)—is totally different, and that this is good and right.
The center of A Mercy is the first-person narrative of Florens, a 16-year-old slave girl smarting from an early betrayal by her mother. Florens now stalks a callous, charming, free black ironworker in an effort to fill the gap in her heart. Her tale interweaves chapters that recount other characters’ stories: Jacob Vaark, Florens’ Anglo-Dutch owner; Lina, an enslaved Native American woman; a wild child of indeterminate origins called Sorrow; Jacob Vaark’s hardy, but mournfully childless wife, Rebekka, and two indentured servants.
Morrison’s iconic types and favored themes appear: murdered and abandoned children; proto-feminist whores; obsessive love; “good” slave owners who die, leaving their charges in a lurch; women fiercely clawing their way through the wilderness. With this cast of characters, Morrison helps us recognize the 1680s as if it were last week, and engages us in a work of fiction with surprisingly minimal plot.
A master of the historical novel who negates the cheesy reverberations of that phrase, Morrison serves a feast that 21st-century readers can taste. We get applesauce and pecans for dessert in Maryland and witness the “frisky, still living entrails” of a criminal put to death in London. Morrison goes beyond simply describing how it was to powerfully evoking how it really might have been. For example, A Mercy reminds us that many white folks traveled to the colonies in ship journeys nearly as dreadful as the Middle Passage, and that 17th-century London—with its religious passions and festive lynchings—was a hellhole that could make the frontier look like a picnic in the park.
The ad-hoc family at the center of A Mercy evokes an America with racial borders that have not yet hardened. The Vaarks’ slaves and servants—all orphaned or sold Africans, whites and Indians—struggle to survive in companionship with the Master and Mistress. We know the history here; we know that it can’t last. As Lina notes, Jacob and Rebekka think they are Adam and Eve. However, given the attendant genocide, disease and the eating of calf hearts fried in butter, Morrison questions not only whether early America was really Eden, but if Eden was really such a paradise.
The reader who knows how grimly the story of race in America will proceed—allowing for a November surprise or two—may be lulled into predicting the end of A Mercy, particularly when the death of Jacob Vaark tears the “family” asunder. But the last chapter is a revelation of horrible tenderness that uprights our assumptions and knocks the wind out of the world. The end is the beginning. And the beginning was misunderstood by Florens and the reader.
A Mercy is its own reward. Still, it’s not obvious how to compare this decidedly smaller novel to that single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.
Since Morrison’s craft involves thwarting expectations, perhaps she would allow a left-field analogy. Let’s consider the most prominent works of the most important television figure in the last 25 years: comic maestro Larry David. A Mercy is to cult favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm as Beloved is to mega-hit Seinfeld; narrower in scope and less anthemic, but just as lovely, more eccentric and every bit as necessary.