A novel like Toni Morrison’s Beloved makes the reviewer’s usual strategies of praise and grumbling seem shallow. I find it hard not to dwell on passages like this description of a fugitive slave trying to get out of the Old South, where what is seen and felt so delicately mirrors the condition of the observer:
And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its grave-yards and low-lying rivers. Or just a house—solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried hard not to love it.
But the writing itself is beside the point, even though the book would have little point without it. One can only try to suggest something of what it is like to find one’s way through an extraordinary act of imagination while knowing that one has missed much, that later reading will find more, and that no reader will ever see all the way in.
Beloved is unlike anything Morrison has done before. Where her previous novels—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby—dealt with the experience of black people, especially black women, in modern America, this one goes back into history, and behind history into the materials of myth and fantasy that sober history usually thinks it is duty-bound to rationalize or debunk or ignore. Before the Civil War, on a Kentucky farm called Sweet Home, a group—a family, in a sense—of slaves lived more or less contentedly under the fairly enlightened rule of reasonably humane masters, the Garners. Mr. Garner conversed with his field hands, consulted their views about their work, treated them as men, not implements. Mrs. Garner managed the female house servants kindly and helped them with what they didn’t know. Still, institutional if not personal inhumanity remained—even Mrs. Garner was amused by her girl Sethe’s hope that her union with Halle Suggs might be dignified by a marriage ceremony, and while Garner readily agreed to free Halle’s crippled mother, Baby Suggs, he charged Halle far more in future Sunday labor than her market value justified. As Edens go, Sweet Home had its flaws—“it wasn’t sweet and it sure wasn’t home,” one of its inmates recalls. But Sethe’s response to this witticism—“But it’s where we were…. All together. Comes back whether we want it to or not”—states a need for connection with the past that the book will dwell upon.
Sweet Home fell apart in the 1850s when Garner died and the farm was taken over by a theorizing …