Synopsis: Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad, yet she is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Meanwhile Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry, destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Sethe works at beating back the past, but it makes itself heard and felt incessantly in her memory and in the lives of those around her. When a mysterious teenage girl arrives, calling herself Beloved, Sethe’s terrible secret explodes into the present.
Combining the visionary power of legend with the unassailable truth of history, Morrison’s unforgettable novel is one of the great and enduring works of American literature.
Before I get started on the review I wanted to bring up something that’s been on my mind. I have been thinking about my efforts to diversify my bookshelf, and know that this is inevitably going to lead to me reading about experiences or points of view that are new or different, and that I may have trouble understanding. While this is exactly the point of diversifying my reading, it also worries me a little bit about what I can and cannot critique in these books. Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on The Ground gave an excellent example of it, where a white person was critiquing a novel written by and Indigenous author, and was saying that it wasn’t “Indian enough” which… wooooow. As a white person I want to be really cognizant about what I can and cannot critique, so if you feel as though I am stepping out of my lane I would love to be vibe checked back into it! I’m still learning, and any guidance about what is and is not appropriate for me as a white reviewer to comment on would be very much appreciated! So yeah! With that in mind, lets go!
This was the first book by Toni Morrison that I read, and I will say that to people new to her writing getting used to her prose can be a little difficult. There were some chapters where I was like hmmmm gonna go check the SparkNotes for this one (it exists, don’t worry). But once you get a few chapters in you’re already more used to it, and there’s nothing that re-reading a sentence or two won’t fix. And once you get the hang of it, it’s very relaxing and engaging to read.
This book broke my heart in a lot of ways, and I think gave such a complete view of inter-generational trauma, community trauma, and how we enact violence on those around us. Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. all deal with their traumas differently, and it is a part of their struggle to understand each other’s comping mechanisms that drives them apart. I think for me one of the most interesting themes in the book was how a community takes care of or isolates people within it, and the effects that is has on those it isolates. Baby Suggs for example was a leader of the community, however she and her family is abandoned once Sethe’s actions become well known. Additionally, how the community finally comes together in those final chapters to at last help Sethe (in stark contrast to how they abandoned her when schoolteacher and his posse came to 124 years earlier) shows that communities are both fickle and (hopefully) can grow and see the errors of their ways. Community care is such a vital part to anyone, and seeing it’s importance in this book was really powerful.
I think that this is a common comment from reviewers of this book, but I feel as though Sethe’s act of killing Beloved isn’t something that I or anyone else can comment on. Is it a terrible deed? Yes, of course, and we see that Sethe suffers for it. But it is an act based out of Sethe’s desire to protect her children, and spare them from the trauma and violence that she faced on schoolteacher’s farm. Especially in light of her recent assault and loss of Halle, Sethe is determined to spare her children from going back and being someone’s property. The whole situation is heart breaking when you read it because you know that these terrible actions are done out of love for her children, but at the same time they aren’t forgivable. And as I said, Sethe knows this and throughout the book wrestles with it. It is what it is, and we should moreso look at the structures that caused Sethe’s desperation and which lead to the act, rather than focus on the act itself.
There were certain parts of the book that really shined for me. One part was Denver’s growth into her own person, going back and learning from Lady Jones, starting to work for the Bodwin’s, stepping up to provide for Sethe when she can no longer deal with the ghost of Beloved. Seeing her become someone who could make decisions for herself, grow out of her isolation, and deal with her feelings towards her mother and Paul D was really nice to see. I also loved the imagery of trees in the novel, both through the scars on Sethe’s back and Denver’s peacefulness in the forest.
I could go on and on. Paul D’s story is so tragic and the more that I have learned about Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration, the angrier it makes me. Also hearing about the other Sweethome men, Sixo in particular, was heart breaking. Let’s just say that I am planning to read many more of Morrison’s books, and the documentary about her on Netflix is high on my to watch list. Oh, and I rated this book 5/5 stars.
That’s it for now ducks, I’ll be back soon with more ramblings!