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Souls in Chains

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, November 9, 2008

A MERCY

By Toni Morrison

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Knopf. 167 pp. $23.95

Toni Morrison's new novel, A Mercy, makes a spellbinding companion to Beloved, her 1987 tour de force that transformed our understanding of slavery and won the Pulitzer Prize. Her old themes rise up in A Mercy like a fever dream: the horrible sacrifice a mother makes to protect her child, the deadly vanity of benevolent slaveholders, the abandonment of a past too painful to remember. But this is a smaller, more delicate novel, a fusion of mystery, history and longing that stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison's body of work.

The lush poetry and amorphous structure of A Mercy reflect the story's distant setting in the mist of America's creation, when independence and the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution were still a century away. The four abandoned women at the center of this novel -- one white, one Native American and two black -- are all enslaved in some way, struggling to maintain their precarious life together on a failing farm in the late 17th century when the New World's traditions of slavery are fresh and fluid.

Summarizing the plot does a certain amount of violence to the novel's self-conscious obscurity, its determination to keep us off balance amid dazzling impressions. The opening chapter, in particular, is a swirl of references to people and events we can't comprehend. ( Beloved, remember, began with the enigmatic words, "124 was spiteful.") Morrison relies heavily on the allure of her imagery, perhaps even on the deference afforded by her Nobel Prize. At this point in her career, she doesn't have to give up meanings any more easily than Faulkner or Joyce did, and like their work, A Mercy conveys powerful emotional effects even when it leaves us struggling for sure footing. "Don't be afraid," a narrator begins. "You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle."

Jacob Vaark, a small-scale trader who was raised in an orphanage, inherited 120 acres in upstate New York from an uncle he'd never met. He considers slavery "the most wretched business" and insists that "flesh was not his commodity," but he works out a moral equation that allows him to make money as a financier to slaveholders. As we've seen before, Morrison writes with the kind of psychological nuance that turns her characters' souls to clear glass: An early scene shows Vaark sneering "at wealth dependent on a captured workforce," even while he profits from it. He eventually makes a fortune, all the while imagining that he's kept himself above "whips, chains and armed overseers." It's a brilliant portrayal of the expedient allowances people make to preserve their sense of purity and self-reliance.

When he began farming, Vaark purchased a 14-year-old Native American named Lina who lost her village to a smallpox epidemic. She's a determined survivor, traumatized first by the death of her family, then by the Presbyterians who "civilize" her. "Terrified of being alone in the world," Morrison writes, "Lina acknowledged her status as heathen and let herself be purified by these worthies. She learned that bathing naked in the river was a sin; that plucking cherries from a tree burdened with them was theft; that to eat corn mush with one's fingers was perverse."

Morrison turns the issue of servitude over and over in fascinating ways. This was, after all, a time before the spectrum of slavery had resolved into black and white. Almost everyone is for sale, and their relations with one another are bound by customs and laws still evolving. Together, Vaark and Lina manage his farm as best they can with an odd kind of mutual respect, but it is "an unrewarding life" until Vaark buys a wife from England, and again the results are surprising. "Rebekka's sheer good fortune in a husband stunned her," Morrison writes. "Already sixteen, she knew her father would have shipped her off to anyone who would book her passage and relieve him of feeding her . . . the stubborn one, the one with too many questions and a rebellious mouth." Vaark also takes in a strange young woman named Sorrow, and as partial payment for a debt, he acquires a slave girl named Florens. The only character who narrates her own chapters, Florens serves as the emotional engine of the novel and the mystery at its core.

"They were orphans, each and all," Morrison writes. The real triumph of A Mercy is its portrayal of the moral ambiguity of these relationships. There are no easy judgments here. Vaark may be compromised by his financial entanglements with slavery, but he's a benevolent patriarch who gives safety to a cast of women who would have no security elsewhere in this place, surrounded by howling wilderness and settlements of religious zealots.

What's happened and what's happening become clear only as several chapters confirm the scrambled chronology of these events: Jacob Vaark has died of smallpox and now his wife, Rebekka, is close to death, too. The farm, their little Eden in the lawless forest, is suddenly threatened with collapse, which can only mean something far worse for its female residents. Morrison depicted the plight of an isolated women's compound in Paradise in 1997, but in this more impressionistic novel she captures the state of powerless women contending for survival in a civilization that would not stabilize for decades. Without a master, they are all at risk; without even a white mistress, they would have no chance.

"Sir and Mistress believed they could have honest free-thinking lives," Lina thinks with a sigh. "Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of a clan. . . . Pride alone made them think they needed only themselves, could shape life that way, like Adam and Eve, like gods from nowhere beholden to nothing except their own creations." Most of the novel takes place as Rebekka lies dying, Lina cares for her, and Sorrow asserts herself -- all three women remembering their lives before and with Vaark. But the heart of the novel is young Florens. She's sent off to find a blacksmith, a free black man who once worked on Vaark's property and may be able to heal Rebekka. For Florens, it's a chance not just to escape but to reunite with him. She propels herself through a frightening travail in the wilderness with an ardent, irrepressible monologue, much of it directed to her absent lover. Her voice is the most demanding but rewarding in the novel, thick with raw poetry and passion. "I never before see leaves make this much blood and brass," she says. "Color so loud it hurts the eye and for relief I must stare at the heavens high above the tree line."

She's sometimes unhinged -- sympathetic one moment, animalistic the next. "These careful words, closed up and wide open, will talk to themselves," Florens says, and in the most mesmerizing sections of the novel, all we can do is listen to her incantations, the voice of a young woman consumed with yearning. "I dream a dream that dreams back at me," she says. "Perhaps these words need the air that is out in the world. Need to fly up then fall, fall like ash over acres of primrose and mallow. . . . I am become wilderness but I am also Florens. In full. Unforgiven. Unforgiving. No ruth, my love. None. Hear me? Slave. Free. I last."

What a strange, affecting story, flowing through an astonishing range of emotions. And consider that all this takes place in just 167 pages, shorter than her far less complicated first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). Morrison, who has written so powerfully of catastrophe, cruelty and horror, here adds to that song of tragedy equally thrilling chords of desire and wonder, which in their own way are no less tragic. Whereas Beloved ends with the cathartic exhaustion of an exorcism, A Mercy concludes with an ambiguous kind of prayer, redolent with possibility and yearning but inspired by despair. This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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