Magazine article The New Yorker

Dreamy Wilderness

Magazine article The New Yorker

Dreamy Wilderness

Article excerpt

Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on. Her newest novel, "A Mercy" (Knopf; $23.95), begins with some kind of confession from an unnamed voice, which reassures the reader:

Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark--weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more--but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.

We are not totally reassured. What blood? What have you (there in the dark) done? The darkness does not quickly lift: "You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle." A dog's profile does what? "That night"--what night?--"I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron. Other signs need more time to understand."

"Minha mae," research reveals, is Portuguese for "my mother," and in time we come to comprehend that it is 1690 in Virginia, and that the narrator is a sixteen-year-old black girl called Florens, who was, at her mother's plea, impulsively adopted, eight years ago, by a white proprietor ("Sir" to Florens), in partial settlement of a debt owed him by an insolvent slave owner from Portugal called "Senhor." This adoption constitutes the "mercy" of the novel's title. It landed Florens in a tobacco-growing homestead populated by Sir, known to the wider world as Jacob Vaark; his wife, Rebekka, a hardy and good-natured London native the servants call Mistress; Lina, short for Messalina, a Native American whose people have been decimated by a plague, and who was sold to Jacob by the Presbyterians who rescued her; and Sorrow, a "mongrelized" young woman, possibly a sea captain's daughter, who survived a shipwreck and was named Sorrow by a sawyer's wife who cared for her until passing her on to the hospitable Sir and Mistress.

When Sir dies, this household becomes a typical Toni Morrison collection of "unmastered women," each spinning "her own web of thoughts unavailable to anyone else." Their vulnerable isolation is mitigated but not wholly relieved by the presence of Scully and Willard, two indentured laborers, homosexual and white, whom Sir hired to work on his quixotically ambitious mansion. After Sir's death, they continue to work for the widow's pay. With amiable competence, the two men deliver a child that Sorrow, who watched Lina drown her firstborn, has conceived. The infant safely born, Sorrow, long addled in the head by her shipboard traumas and her illusion of an advisory companion called Twin, regains focus and, to cap this saga of freighted names, renames herself:

She had looked into her daughter's eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee. "I am your mother," she said. "My name is Complete."

From her first novel, "The Bluest Eye" (1970), Morrison has worked, in line with the celebrated Faulknerian dictum that the past is not past, in a historical vein. "The Bluest Eye," bristling with sixties literary trickiness and protest, takes place in 1940-41, and includes an impressionistic map of black flight from the South during the Depression; stepping momentarily into the present, the author offers a retrospective history of the structure "on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio," which for the time of the narrative was occupied by the doomed and desperate family of the thorough loser Cholly Breedlove. "Sula" (1974) opens with an elegiac sketch of a black neighborhood called the Bottom and dates its chapters from 1919 to 1965. "Song of Solomon" (1977) begins four years after Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, in 1927, and "Beloved" (1987) takes place a few years after the Civil War. …

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