Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Beloved – Toni Morrison
I never expected to enjoy this book club suggestion, but this was not the novel I remembered; its previous associations were with hyperbolic depictions of the violent acts humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. This is not to say that is isn’t a rough read, but only because the terrifying subject matter is handled so craftily and with such staggering technique. Beloved’s punch may have had its main reception in 1990’s America, but it would be a truly stony reader who could remain unaffected today.
Morrison shifts across the permeable membrane separating past and present (“the idea of past errors taking possession of the present”) while giving her array of characters voices it is not in your interest to ignore. This enables her to do something impressive and irritating simultaneously: there is no need to describe rape, beatings, sex, infanticide and neglect when there is a tissue of symbols and resonant phrases that create a kind of shorthand. A chokeberry tree refers to the scars Sethe carries on her back from a whipping she received as a slave. There is no danger of straying into misery memoir territory with such deftness of touch, a knife wrapped in velvet. Amy — the white characters are all benevolent but awful — is coded as “that girl looking for velvet” before we know her name. She asks Sethe (running for her life): “You don’t know about that, do you? Now you never will. Bet you never even sleep with the sun in your face.”The horrors of slavery are delicately but indelibly impressed upon the reader. Sethe meets Stamp Paid on her flight, and his assistance of a fugitive slave as a free black man would render him an ‘abductor’ in the Underground Railroad. This network enabled 100,000 slaves to escape to the free states by 1850; at its height only 1000 a year made it.
The main event: gaining your freedom and what the implications are once you have paid the price. Sethe makes it across the river and finds sanctuary with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs.What unfolds shortly after is described in hindsight by Stamp Paid:
“Stamp looked into Paul D’s eyes and the sweet conviction in them almost made him wonder if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that while he and Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slave girl had recognized a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children.”
Sethe, who ‘had milk enough for all’ is triggered to this at the sight of her captors. It is dangerous in this fugitive existence for a black woman to love anything more than a little – indeed Sethe’s love is ‘too thick’ for her lover Paul D – and Sethe transgresses, and so summons Beloved, fully formed yet ‘full of a baby’s venom’.
Her murderous act lands her in jail with her surviving daughter Denver, and her sojourn in clink is one of the many gaps in the story, along with fleeting references only to the Klan and Civil War. Sethe provides her defence with the statement that “It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that.” She sees her desperate act as a defiantly lesser evil. Her former friend Ella, is phlegmatic in her judgement: “Slave life; freed life – every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even if you were a solution you were a problem.”
This is is the bleakest thread within the shifting tale, that you can rely on little beyond the knowledge that the bad times will return. Despite the narrative final warning: “It was not a story to pass on”, this is a resolution inciting the reader to break it, gingerly.