The Bottom Line:
In A Mercy, Toni Morrison takes a fresh look at familiar themes:
mothers and daughters, self-destructive desire, and as always, the burdens of freedom.
Both stories offer perspectives on American slavery that depart from the sprawling plantations, cotton fields, and slave cabins of the antebellum era. Jones troubles our assumptions about history and community by depicting the lives of blacks who owned slaves. Now in A Mercy, Morrison further disassembles familiar narratives of racial slavery through the wilderness wanderings of the late-17th century, where white indentured servants work alongside blacks, slave and free.
I only mention Jones here because I am not used to comparing Morrison to other writers in this manner; hers is a pioneering voice. When Beloved appeared in 1987, its moral ambiguity and achingly beautiful prose set her apart from her peers. But in 2008, A Mercy arrives in an environment that is increasingly populated with Morrison’s own literary offspring – Jones, Colson Whitehead,Randall Kenan,Edwidge Danticat, and Percival Everettamong others – who have followed in her footsteps by publishing engaging, complex fiction about race and identity.
Nevertheless, Morrison’s latest contribution remains fresh and inventive. Her work still shines. In A Mercy, Morrison takes a new look at familiar themes: mothers and daughters, self-destructive desire, and as always, the burdens of freedom.
A Mercy is told through multiple perspectives, although the only main character who is voiced in the first person is a young enslaved black girl named Florens. In her broken script, Florens recalls the journey from the bedside of her ill mistress to the doorstep of her lover, a free black man who is a blacksmith and folk healer.
We also encounter the New World landscape from the point of view of Florens’s owners, a struggling white farmer and the wife he “purchases” from England, Rebekka. Interestingly, Rebekka shares her transatlantic journey with a group of white women outcasts – mostly prostitutes and criminals – crammed beneath the ship’s deck in a way that invites comparison with the Middle Passage of African slaves. In this and other ways, the novel focuses considerably on the shared longings of women, including Rebekka’s other servants – Lina, an orphaned Native American, and Sorrow, a pregnant white girl.
The comparisons to Beloved are inevitable given the setting, and there are moments when Florens, so utterly smitten by the blacksmith, sounds like Sethe’s obsessed ghost child. (“You are one leaf on his tree.” “No. I am his tree.”) Those who have made it to the final pages of Jazz will enjoy the “talking room” in this novel. The female friendships and betrayals of Sula are here, as well as the theological criticisms of Paradise. At one point during her difficult journey, Rebekka considers the lessons of Job and thinks:
But then Job was a man. Invisibility was intolerable to men. What complaint would a female Job dare to put forth? And if, having done so, and He deigned to remind her of how weak and ignorant she was, where was the news in that? What shocked Job into humility and renewed fidelity was the message a female Job would have known and heard every minute of her life.
One thing, however, that distinguishes A Mercy from Morrison’s other works is the sustained suspense and intrigue of Florens’s journey. Unlike previous novels that emphasizes the consequences of the main character’s actions (i.e. The Bluest Eye), this story’s mystery unravels slowly, but satisfyingly too. Hear the author read excerpts from A Mercy here.
Now in all honesty, the book is a challenge to get into – I wasn’t hooked until about page 25 – and while I also found it to be a little too short, it may just be long enough to reward curious new readers. It probably comes as no surprise that we would recommend any book by Morrison, after all, the name of this blog is taken from one of her works. A Mercy does not exactly aspire to the heights of Sula, and it can’t compete with the unparalleled mastery of Beloved, but I still found it to be a gratifying read.