It is always sad to read that a longstanding heroine has passed away. For years, when asked ‘Who’s your favourite author?’ I’d answer ‘Toni Morrison’, seconds before I wondered if I should have said ‘Jeanette Winterson’ or ‘Cormac McCarthy’. But Toni Morrison was always the first name on my lips. So when I heard that she had died, it made me feel sad: even though eighty eight is not a bad age to go, there is still a sense of loss when someone who was so huge in the world of literature and so important to my own literary education dies. She developed and extended the black American literary canon and she championed black writers for more than ten years as an editor at Random House. She was my favourite writer for years. I loved her stories.
I’d read so many of her novels: The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Tar Baby, The Song of Solomon, Sula, and The Origin of Others. My goodness, that woman could write! She could transport you to incredible places with her words; she could evoke characters you could believe were real and she could certainly mangle your emotions. For me, this was evident in all her novels, but nowhere were my emotions mangled more than in her book, Beloved.
Beloved is a book about slavery, about grief and trying to forget the horrors of the past. Beloved is the baby daughter who was murdered by her mother, Sethe, desperately trying to prevent her child from being snatched into a life of slavery. Years later, she turns up at her mother’s home, a grown woman. Her name, Beloved, comes from the unfinished etching on her tombstone. As a concept, the idea is a spine tingle in itself.
I was drawn in from the first chapter, where Morrison explains that Sethe’s house is haunted by a ‘haint’; the spirit of the murdered child is not at rest and she is angry. Sethe’s sons run away in fear. Only Sethe seems to accept the presence of Beloved’s ‘lively spite.’ So when her daughter returns home in the flesh, Sethe wants to make amends and to love her daughter above herself. Of course, Beloved does not make life easy for Sethe or her younger sister, Denver, or Sethe’s man, Paul D. Beloved is charming, angry, needy, spiteful and vengeful.
I read Beloved while in Israel many years ago on a semi-professional trip, travelling and meeting people by day and reading avidly at night. I’d be tucked up in a tiny bed in Jerusalem, under the covers with a torch, reading the pages while my roommates snuffled softly in the bed opposite. I couldn’t put the book down. Morrison’s incredible writing, at times economic, at times heartbreakingly beautiful, had me hooked. The plot took my breath away; I understood the dilemma. A mother’s boundless love, a mother’s guilt and the desire to put her child first, combined with a spirit-made-flesh who will suck her parent dry. It was chilling, thrilling and all-engrossing.
Then, in the middle section of the novel, Toni Morrison did something truly amazing. Beloved starts to talk. In a language which is jumbled, poetic and terrifying, the character who could not speak when she first arrives at Sethe’s house tries her voice and we begin to understand what she is, why she is. I have never trembled so much under blankets at the end of a torch’s beam. It was truly powerful.
Beloved is a novel with many themes: mother’s love, the psychological impact of slavery, regret, pain and guilt; it is about what it means to be a mother and it is also about the conflict between manhood and motherhood. It is probably the most impactful book I have ever read. In some ways, it is the most important. It unveils horrors and it is traumatic, disturbing and beautifully written.
Toni Morrison is believed to have said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I wonder if Beloved was that book for her? For me, it was a life-changer, a novel in another class above most other novels I had read. And now Toni Morison has died, I want to express how much I loved her writing, and how especially I adored Beloved. It was a tale for which I felt the most respect, the most admiration; it was my favourite novel for which I felt the fattest love.
For, as Morrison says in Beloved, ‘Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.’