Posted by: Corri van de Stege | November 18, 2008

Beloved, by Toni Morrison – a book review

413r9cgw4xl__sl500_aa240_Beloved – by Toni Morrison

Now I’ve read Jazz and Beloved by Toni Morrison.  The next one to read is A Mercy, waiting there on my pile.  Yes, I bought the hardback: sometimes it’s just lovely to hold a hardback cover in your hands, especially when it is a book that you know you will treasture!

Beloved is an extremely demanding book, but worth every effort.  It is not easy to read, it tells a terrible story in sometimes difficult language, but it uses words and sentences to make up for the things that were lost, for the inhumanity that needed to somehow or other be reconciled and talked about and come to terms with.  I don’t think you can write a story like this one in a simple language.

I decided to read this book, before reading A Merci.  I don’t know why.  I’m glad I read it though: it tells a most terrible story in a challenging way.  It’s make-belief, yes, but perhaps because you could not possibly convey the devastating inhumanity in any other way, but through a story of a haunted house, a girl coming back from the dead to demand revenge.  If I sometimes have the illusion that I am able to write, I think that reading this puts one back in one’s place.  Toni Morrison has a way with words that is quite extraordinary.

This is the story of ‘coloured people’ during and just after the abolition of slavery and it conveys the sense of loss, of utter malice, of people being dehumanised and being made to feel losers, over and over again, as if they are not worth anything, as if somehow or other they have no right to be on this earth, and if so, only to serve another race that considers itself more superior.  Of course, there are the ‘abolitionists’, but even they seem quite condescending and it’s very difficult to imagine what it was like, either to be distributing this kind of ‘justice’ or to be on the receiving end of it.  It is beyond me, but nevertheless, reading this is so terribly real and frightening. 

Although the title is the name of the baby girl who is killed, Beloved, by her own mother, the book is about what slavery did to her mother and those around her, those who lived it and somehow or other lived through it.  Sethe, the mother, escapes the slavery of the ‘schoolteacher’ after the master of the house  (Sweet Home) has died, and after having managed to send her three children away to the north, to her mother-in-law.  But all that is only revealed bit by bit, and to begin with it is difficult to put the pieces together, to understand who is who and what is what, but then maybe that is just a reflection of how it was: no one was worth very much, slaves were sold, families torn apart if they even had the chance to think about themselves as families.  They were simply sold and used as cattle.  For a while life appeared manageable, better, at Sweet Home, for as long as Mr Garner was alive, but after his death the real horror story starts all over again.  As a reader of this story, you only find out bit by bit – Toni Morrison does not make it easy for anyone to piece it together, it is as if we live are dropped into pieces of conversation, bits of memory, snatches of dreams and sentences but as long as we don’t miss a word we will put it together.  There’s Sethe’s daughter Denver, who is not the girl that was sent out of Sweet Home, but is the daughter that was born during Sethe’s escape journey  from Sweet Home to 124.  Baby Suggs is the mother of Halle, Sethe’s husband, and Halle had bought her freedom, only Halle went under in the horror of the aftermath, after Mr. Garner died and everything changed for everyone because the ‘Teacher’ who came to look after his ill wife, did not think much of the slaves that lived in the house.  Denver cannot come to terms with herself or her mother after she finds out what her mother did to her other daughter, the one who had just started crawling.  Sethe killed her, horribly, just to keep her from falling into the clutches of the white folk, just to make sure she would not suffer the way everyone else had suffered.  And this is what the story is about, how this daughter, Beloved, comes to haunt everyone and everything, her mother, her baby sister, the house they live in, the grandmother who dies of grief and shame when Sethe kills her own child, Paul D, one of the men who somehow escapes from Sweet Home but undergoes terrible suffering.

The writing is searing and beautiful.  Take this, when Stamp Paid tries to alert Paul D to what Sethe did, back then:

Stamp Paid looked into Paul D’s eyes and the sweet conviction in them almost made him wonder if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that when he and Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slavegirl had recognised a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children.

That is how we understand that Sethe, rather than giving over her children to the white man,  and everything that would do to them, tries to kill them.

When Beloved begins to haunt the house they all live in, 124, and Paul D decides to move out as he can no longer bear it, Stamp Paid, when talking to Paul D realises that it is not what he told Paul D about Sethe that made Paul D do a runner, but rather this girl, who has taken over 124.  Then we get the most original and wonderful ‘list’ that authors tend to come up with in their writing:

A shudder ran through Paul D.  A bone-cold spasm that made him clutch his knees.  He did not know if it was bad whiskey , nights in the cellar, pig fever, iron bits, smiling roosters, fired feet, laughing dead men, hissing grass, rain, apple blossoms, neck jewelry, Judy in the slaughterhouse, Halle in the butter, ghost-white stairs, chokecherry trees, cameo pins, aspens, Paul A’s face, sausage or the loss of red, red heart.

This  is just marvellous –  what a wonderful and evocative list.  Each and every one on this list means something, evokes a picture that roots the story.  And then Paul D asks:

Tell me this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take? Tell me. How much?’

Next one on the list:

A Merci, by Toni Morrison.



  1. Great review! I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and I found it to be a very challenging read. Definitely not pleasure reading! Although I’m glad I read it, it was not a book I would ever say I enjoyed.

  2. I read “Beloved” years ago and really struggled to get through it. It was worth the effort, though, because I still think about it every once in awhile. How many novels can you say THAT about?

    I can’t wait to read your review of “A Mercy.” If you recommend it, I may just have to break down and buy it!

  3. Kim L: yes, I think her books need perseverance but they are well worth it! This is because her stories and characters are simply breathtaking and keep you intrigued for long after having read about them.
    chartroose: I agree that her prose is difficult – I also found it hard going at times, as you say, well worth the effort. Have started A Mercy and will let you know what I think: the start is as difficult as ever 🙂

  4. I haven’t read any Morrison (yet), but bought The Bluest Eye on my sister’s recommendation. I hope to read it soon.

    Her latest novel A Mercy sounds interesting in the reviews, so I’d like to get to it as well.

  5. I’m so glad you said BELOVED was difficult. I thought so, too. It took me awhile to read; I couldn’t do my usual fly through.
    Yes, this is real writing. A real story. the writing is excellent; and the story’s structure is excellent.

    Wonder what you’ll think of A MERCY. Will wait to hear before I jump on that one.

  6. The “montage” manner with which Toni Morrison wrote Beloved is what I think her handle to convey the inhuman truth that slaves with mere the “untouchable” that they aren’t even worthy of a name. The confusion is to reminds us how many of these people were completely forgotten, wiped out from history. Interesting I plan to re-read Beloved before plunging into A Mercy as well. 🙂

  7. I love Toni Morrison’s work, but yes, you have to “work” at it sometimes — I felt much the same way with Beloved. But it was one I was glad to read.

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