There is no suspense in the ghost story that Toni Morrison tells in Beloved, her fifth novel. In the first line she unveils the mystery: her heroine lives in a house haunted by “a baby’s venom.” But this is no ordinary story of a child-ghost. As mirrors shatter
and tiny handprints appear on cakes, Morrison—perhaps the pre-eminent black novelist of her generation—weaves a tale that is all the more terrifying for its historical basis. Beloved is the story of Sethe, a runaway slave who, seeing her loathed owner coming to snatch her back from freedom in the North, murdered her two-year-old daughter with a handsaw rather than deliver the girl to the horrors she had known.
As the book opens in 1873, Sethe— living on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio—still wears the shackles of her past. She has grown resigned to the solitary life that she shares with her surviving daughter, Denver, the only person whom the angry infant spirit has not driven away. One morning an uninvited guest suddenly appears: Paul D, a former slave who has loved Sethe since they toiled together on a Kentucky plantation. His love exorcises the child-ghost. But then a mysterious 20-year-old black girl arrives, without warning, bearing a jagged scar around her neck. She calls herself Beloved— the word Sethe had carved on her dead baby’s tombstone 18 years earlier in exchange for letting the stonecutter have his way with her for 10 minutes in the graveyard.
It soon becomes clear that Beloved has returned in the flesh to settle her grievances—and that the haunting has just begun. Far worse than any ghost are the memories that the two visitors unleash. Paul’s nightmares are of chain gangs and humiliation, the taste of an iron bit in his mouth and the smell of a fellow slave’s burning skin in his nostrils. Sethe’s horrors predate even the infanticide: she suffered a disfiguring whipping and a gang rape. Forced to witness it, her husband went mad.
As Morrison turns those individual recollections into the collective memory of a race, she reveals her true purpose. From the brutal outlines of her ghost story, she has fashioned an incandescent meditation on slavery—and on what it is to be human. Morrison’s novel is not about the loss of a child’s life but about the loss of self, the denial of humanity that made death kinder than slavery. As Sethe remarks at one point: “Anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you . . . dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”
As in Song of Solomon, her National Book Award-winning novel, Morrison’s incantatory prose occasionally strains too hard for effect. She hammers some images into grating melodrama and reduces some characters to leaden symbolism. But the passion of her vision propels her story to symphonic grandeur. From a tale of wretchedness, she extracts a wondrous healing—and perhaps the best definition modern fiction has yet offered of love met on its own terms. In the words of one long-dead slave: “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
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