Monday, September 27, 2010

Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 5 Pierogies

Review: Beloved is one of those books that everyone who wants to consider themselves "well-read" knows they should read at some point in their life. It won a Pulitzer prize and is probably the most well-regarded book written by a black woman of all time.

I avoided this book for years. I assumed, like most thing academics and media elites fawn about, that Beloved would be overrated, self-indulgent and pretentious. The fact that the New York Times' book editor named it the Best Work of American Fiction in the Last 25 Years only magnified my complete distrust for the hype around this book. Then the godforsaken French inducted Toni Morrison into the Legion Honor Society with Mitterrand saying she is the "greatest American novelist of her time" and I swore her work off completely.

Being a malcontent and cynic I assumed that people so wanted this to be a good book that they labeled it one regardless of merit. I figured I would be totally let down after reading Beloved and feel like I did after reading the Great Gatsby (yes, I hated the Great Gatsby okay?). However, one day I passed my bookshelf and Beloved seemed to be calling my name so I grabbed it and dug in.

Well don't I just feel like a giant A-hole right now? As it turns out, Beloved is magnificent. The awards, accolades and hype were well deserved for once. I really loved this book. It is one of the few books out there when both the story and the quality of writing combine into an amazing piece of art (and I will only refer to novels as "art" if both the story and writing are excellent). Beloved is art.

Had I known Beloved was essentially a ghost story (or arguable ghost story) I probably would have read it a long time ago. Although the "main" plot line is the ghost story, the tales of the various characters' past (the story of slavery in America) is told in flashbacks. Although the book jumps around in time it is not difficult to follow.

The main story and ancillary stories told in Beloved are all interesting, emotionally charged and significant. Beloved is a ghost story, a mystery and historical fiction all rolled into one. This book tackles the horrors of slavery but does not do it an an overwrought, maudlin, preachy or emotionally abusive way. It states the reality is stark, untouched terms - which makes the telling all the more beautiful and horrible.

In short, Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver and their lives after escaping from slavery. Their home is haunted with the ghost of Sethe's murdered daughter and it affects their already complicated lives in significant and frightening ways. There is literally endless scholarship devoted to the ghost in Beloved - what is it? what does it represent? In the end it doesn't really matter - Beloved will affect the reader in a profound way regardless.

Perhaps my favorite part about Beloved was the uniqueness and strength of the writing. I haven't given any thought to the simile since 5th grade when we learned how to differentiate between similes and metaphors. Beloved, literally, made me fall in love with the simile. Morrison's writing is stark, raw and earthy. The descriptions she creates with plain, even harsh words, used in ways I had never conceived of makes her writing so incredibly powerful. Morrison writes using a vocabulary and tone that former slaves would used - plain, nature-based, utilitarian. Yet, she transforms it into something exceptionally beautiful - something incredibly unique and special. I was truly moved by the literal writing in this novel and I cannot remember the last time I felt this way about a book.

Beloved is exceptional and special. I am so glad I read it.