This is the first Toni Morrison book I’ve read and, loaded with the emotional baggage of white South African guilt, I approached it with some trepidation.
The story is told from numerous viewpoints, predominantly that of three women. Rebekka (a white woman), Lina (her Native American slave) and Florens (her young teenage black slave) have a complex relationship. The fragility of this relationship is highlighted in the brief glimpses we have of life in the America of the 1680’s seen through the eyes of other characters, such as Jacob Vaark (Rebekka’s husband), Sorrow (another slave), Scully (neither slave nor free) and finally, in a moving introspection, Florens’s unnamed mother (also a slave).
Characterisations were superb, although at first I found the choppy voice of Florens difficult to follow. But the last section, the only time we hear from her mother, brought all the threads of the story together in a heart-stopping moment of poignancy. With unerring accuracy, Morrison shows how the pain of loss can forever change a human soul.
The grandeur of her writing shows in her superb ability to paint a picture of a slavery that extends far beyond that of white domination over black. She makes the point that many of the original slaves who found their way to colonial America from Africa were enslaved by other Africans: “… insults had been moving back and forth to and fro for many seasons between the king of we families and the king of others…everything heats up and finally the men of their families burn we houses and collect those they cannot kill or find for trade. Bound with vine…the men guarding we and selling we are black.” Domination, Morrison makes clear, takes many shapes but the only time it is truly evil is when we ourselves give our freedom away.
Morrison also shows that slavery for women is cross-cultural. Ultimately, though, what Morrison does in her beautifully sparse and yet lyrical text is show that the enslavement of the human soul is where the most damage is done. ‘Own yourself, woman, and leave us be,’ the free blacksmith says to Florens and in the end the only way that any of the women can “own” themselves is in hatred, bitterness and loss. Their one chance of redemption comes through motherhood, as poor, mad Sorrow finds after she has given birth to her daughter.
Even that is tempered by the pathos of the final chapter. The difficult choices that Sorrow, as both slave and mother, will have to make at some time in her daughter’s future is foreshadowed in the glimpse we have of the harrowing choice that Florens’s mother had to make.
It's in this implicit threat to the brief happiness that Sorrow has found as a mother that I find my one disappointment with A Mercy lies. It’s not that I want or expect a “quick and happy ending” to any novel I read or movie I see. Rather, I’m concerned by the unremitting darkness, the lack of hope, that so many profound books offer as their raison d’être. If life was so unremittingly bleak; if, no matter how good or decent a person is, the suffering they endure always turns them into the angry and violent person Florens becomes, or the pious and bitter and evil person Rebekka becomes, how has humankind survived? Is there never any other option for the pitiful human condition but to escape into the madness of Sorrow?
In A Mercy, Toni Morrison’s brilliant and compassionate prose tells it like it was, but I would have enjoyed the novel more if she had also told it like it could be. If, in some small way she had shown that, despite the suffering that life, and others, impose on us, we can, and do, have the choice - even if circumscribed by the context of our lives - of unshackling the chains that bind us to a painful past.