The weeks come and go and I seem unable to get a handle on what I’m doing and when. At the same time so many things are going wrong in the world on such a scale that it almost seems pointless to try and create order. The Mumbai attacks, the pointless killing and carnage – again – make you wonder about your own small worries, the never-ending battle with time and trying to get things done, your job, your reading, your writing, communicating with people, etc. Even the recession and economic gloom disappear into the background when you try and understand these senseless killings. No, much of it does not make sense and it is better to take a deep breath and take things as they come. There is now for me also the worry about what is happening in Thailand with my youngest son out there with his girlfriend ‘on the holiday of his life’… only to be caught in a situation where he does not know if he is able to fly back in the middle of next week or not.
Not surprisingly then that I have not been in the mood for blogging much – at least not about what I am reading or writing. However, what is better than a rainy and cold and miserable Sunday afternoon curled up inside, when the day seems to move from dawn to early evening without much light in between, and sit back with newspapers, and think about books and writing.
I started a review of A Merci by Toni Morrison, and then came across the New York Times review here, which is such an extensive and comprehensive review that it does not make much sense to try and do the same again. A Merci is about America in 1690, the making of modern America, when racism and slavery helped to divide poor people and poverty was used to enslave people. In this way, someone like Rebekka, who although white, is also a kind of slave, bartered by her father to a Dutchman, and shipped across the world to America to marry him. People sold anybody to anybody, not only blacks, and in particular women were at the butt end of this (white or black). Rebekka’s husband, Jacob, although initially seemingly ‘more human’ and distancing himself from slavery, is caught up in the greed, and sacrifices all in order to feed it.
The story is told from the perspective of the different characters in the book. Rebekka in her new life and trying to fit in with the religious Baptist women who live in the village compares that with the life of her shipmates on her way to America, poor women who were sent as servants and slaves and notes that
Although they [her shipmates and the Baptist women) had nothing in common with the views of each other, they had everything in common with one thing: the promise and threat of men. Here, they agreed, was where security and risk lay. And both had come to terms. Some, like Sorrow, who apparently was never coached by other females, became their play. Some like her shipmates fought them. Others, the pious, obeyed them. ……
Adam first, Eve next, and also, confused about her role, the first outlaw?
But the book is first and foremost about Florens, Sorrow and Nila, acquired by Jacob to farm his land, trying to make sense of their lives, even if they have no control over it. Florens, the little girl with fancy shoes, who needs to learn to live and walk in a world that is very dangerous for a girl, in particular a black girl. She learns the hard way so that at last she accepts that she has to walk without shoes:
Mae, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.
So I think Toni Morrison very much approaches the issue of slavery and possession in terms of her female characters and what it means to them.
Read the New York Times review: it gives a very comprehensive overview of the story. I want to recommend this book to you: it is, in Toni Morrison’s style, a difficult book, but not as difficult, or as intense, as Hope. This has a story that grips you from beginning to end. It requires you to pay attention – but it is well worth it. Never has human slavery been so well portrayed in all its horrifying aspects, and showing little glimpses of hope, A Merci, that people cling to, because they need to. Not realising that it has not become better, only they needed to think it would be better, wanting a mercy…
I’m glad that the Sunday Times in its overview of a Year of Fantastic Fiction, includes A Mercy as Novel of the Year. It is…
Others on that list? One that I have read is Breath by Tim Winton, plus a number that are on my wishlist or tbr list: Zoe Heller – The Believers; David Lodge – Deaf Sentence and Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger.
On the very busy trains last week and stuck in one horrible hotel room I lost myself in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Excellent for reading on trains, a lovely story about Gogol, born in America and with Bangladeshi parents, who does not like his name and tries to re-invent himself only to realise that as he grows older that his search for identity will bring him back to himself and is totally independent from his name. That’s a very brief synopsis!
Enjoy your Sunday Salon wherever you are.