100 Best Novels Guardian list, 21st century literature, American literature, Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, 1977

‘Song of Solomon’, makes an interesting companion text to Morrison’s later novel, ‘Beloved’ which I reviewed earlier this month. Both novels take as their subject matter the question of African American identity and experience, but while ‘Beloved’ looks unflinchingly at arguably the most difficult period of this experience, the nineteenth century, ‘Song of Solomon’ takes as its setting a later, less traumatic time span, approximately 1930-1963. SoSThe novel opens with the death of an insurance agent, Robert Smith, who believes he can fly. From this opening scene Morrison introduces her cast, the Dead family, who witness Smith’s death, along with the rest of the community of Not Doctor Street, The family derives their name from the period immediately after the end of slavery, when all former slaves had to register with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and when the answer to a question about the character’s father (who was deceased) was mistakenly entered as his name. Other unusual names are a motif throughout the novel, either as nicknames – Milkman, Guitar, Sweet – or as family names chosen at random from the bible – First Corinthians, Pilate, and Magdalene called Lena

At first the novel is a wide-ranging saga following the interwoven relationships of the Dead family across several generations. The structure is complex, with revelations about the family’s past being revealed slowly in flashback. However the novel changes pace at roughly half way, (the original New York Times review called it an “abrupt shift”) and in this latter section the narrative becomes more akin to a thriller or a detective story. Here the search for buried gold, a midnight hunt, a secret society and above all an emerging mystery surrounding the origins of the Dead family are breathlessly presented. Eventually the novel’s protagonist, Milkman, so-called because his mother breastfed him into early childhood, learns his great-grandfather Solomon was said to have escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, bringing the theme of flight full circle. Finally, another leap into flight leaves the novel to end on an ambiguous note. Morrison uses this theme –flight – as both a symbol of empowerment and escape, and of self delusion and suicide.

Morrison took a risk in making Milkman her central character – he is not very sympathetic, particularly in his relationships with women, not least his cousin Hagar, who eventually dies of (to all intents and purposes) a broken heart. He is heavily influenced by his parents, but takes most of his advantages and friendships for granted. One of the best scenes is where his sister, after decades of silence, finally lays into him:

“Where do you get the right to decide our lives? I’ll tell you where. From that little hog’s gut that hangs between your legs. Well, let me tell you something… you will need more than that. I don’t know where you will get it or who will give it to you, but mark my words, you will need more than that…. You are a sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man. I hope your little hog’s gut stands you in good stead, and you take good care of it, because you don’t have anything else.”

I can admire Morrison’s obvious skill in this novel. She combines a compelling storyline with wonderfully crafted imagery and insights into complexities of the African American experience in twentieth century America. The skill in construction of the novel is obvious in little scenes like the following, where Milkman and Guitar spot a peacock white incongruously in the street:

“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?’ Milkman asked.

Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that [stuff]. Wanna fly, you got to give up the [stuff] that weighs you down.’

In just a few lines the themes of flight, commercialism and the pursuit of wealth are neatly tied up in a brief sketch. Morrison’s penetrating insight is also shown in the portrayal of relationships between men and women, for example when Milkman describes a conquest as a “third beer”.

“She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make.”

So why the hesitation? The simple truth is that I admired and enjoyed this novel, but wasn’t blown away by it. It lacks some of the power of ‘Beloved’, and while many of the characters are memorable, not least Milkman’s aunt Pilate, yet Milkman himself is not the character the reader wants to follow. The change of tone is at the time welcome – who doesn’t enjoy the occasional midnight chase or escape from sudden death – but the uneasy shift in tone left me wanting to know more about some of the threads left dangling. Lastly, I’ve written elsewhere at my frustration with authors using the device of killing off a key character simply to provide a convenient resolution (rather than as the fulfilment of an inevitable fate)– I was surprised to see an author of Morrison’s calibre relying on this approach as well.

20th century Literature, American literature, Beloved, Book review, Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987

‘Beloved‘ addresses the issue of slavery in nineteenth century America. It is not an easy read – the novel does not shy away from the horrors of slavery; at the same time it avoids gratuitous descriptions of the physical, sexual and psychological tortures that slaves had to face. When dealing with nightmares such as this experience the author has to walk a tightrope – to deny the magnitude of the crimes against humanity that slavery represents would be wrong, but to simply show horrifically bad things happening to people would be unbearable, and quite possibly exploitative. Morrison manages this balance by giving a voice to the slaves themselves – the story is told through the eyes of the enslaved and the newly freed.beloved

The book tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from slavery. Their home is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s daughter. Sethe’s teenage sons have run away from home, and her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, for a long time a stabilising maternal figure in her life, has died. Sethe and her surviving daughter, are haunted by horrific events from their past which are revealed slowly through the course of the novel. In reconstructing the events for a summary of this kind it is convenient to present these events in a ordered, chronological structure, but in the novel itself there is no such order – events are presented in a chaotic, fractured manner with numerous jumps in time and space, representing the chaotic nature of the characters lives, and the difficulty they face in escaping their memories and pasts.

Paul D, one of the slaves from the plantation where Sethe and her family were once enslaved, arrives at her home, moves in, and (briefly) exorcises the ghost. But on the way back from a trip to a carnival, one of the few carefree moments the characters enjoy, they meet an ethereal young woman, calling herself Beloved, who we slowly are led to believe is the reincarnated spirit of Sethe’s murdered baby. Gradually, Paul D is forced out of the home by Beloved. At the heart of the novel is a terrible scene alluded to at several points, but finally shown, where to avoid being re-enslaved Sethe tries to kill her children, although ultimately only killing her eldest daughter, the eponymous Beloved.

Whether Beloved is an actual ghost, or a traumatised escaped slave assuming a role given to her, has diverted some readers, but Morrison quite deliberately leaves this question open, so trying to locate a definitive answer to this question is pointless. She is neither and both.

In ‘Beloved’ Morrison stares into the face of the horror that was slavery, and there are no easy escapes – although the characterisation of white people is carefully nuanced, (they are not all monsters), there is no avoiding that fact that even the ‘kind’ slave owners were guilty of a horrific crime against humanity. Morrison shows the fully diversity of the experience of black and mixed race people – some lead less tortured lives than others, but all are devastated by the experience in different ways, from the slaves who die needlessly in punishment killings and lynchings, to the free mixed race school teacher who cannot avoid the “taint” of her heritage. For too long I have known about the barbarism that was the 19th century slave trade, but avoided reading about the issue – this novel has inspired me to remedy that as soon as possible.

P.S. Just a note about the Virago edition – a really poorly printed version where the ink has bled slightly into the paper, making it all a little fuzzy. Even the cheapest mass produced editions are usually better than that!