Beloved is perhaps the most critically acclaimed book written by one of the most prolific and celebrated authors. It is the story of a woman, Sethe, who escaped slavery, only to be haunted by her past life both on and off the plantation. The book is parts historical fiction and part surreal ghost story. The book has been turned into a film, won a Pulitzer Prize, and continues to be assigned in schools across the country. When we talk about the “great American novel” Beloved makes the list.
There is something funny that happens to books when they’re proceeded with superlatives, they become untouchable and intimidating. A fear creeps in, that the reader won’t understand or appreciate the book, and often that can start long before the reader ever starts reading. That was the case for me when I picked up Beloved for the first time as part of The Stacks Book Club. I was so nervous and intimidated by the book and what I might think of it. Would I “get” it? Would I like it? Would I be moved as so many others had been?
The truth is, my answer was mostly, no. I didn’t really “get” it, I didn’t really like it, and while I was moved by specific scenes and passages, I wasn’t over come by this book. And the more I think about that, the more I think thats allowed.
As I read Beloved I appreciated the skill and mastery of Ms. Morrison. I was impressed by her ability to create layer after layer of meaning in her story. Her ability to write nuance is unmatched in my reading, she understanding of how pain manifests itself in people is art in itself. I read Beloved and understood what makes both Ms. Morrison and the book so great, though I personally was never personally overcome. What I’m learning, especially when it comes to great work, is that both things can be true and live together. There are both technical and emotional components to any good piece of art, and you can appreciate one even if the other doesn’t resonate. These things are not mutually exclusive.
Of all the themes in Beloved, the idea of generational trauma, is what spoke to me most. Morrison connects the years of suffering under chattel slavery to the everyday manifestations of trauma on her characters. She creates characters that are complete with confidence and crazy, which is so very human. Your heart aches for the women in this story, their fear, pain, and rage is deserved, and Morrison never lets you forget that. Weather she is recounting events from years ago or writing dialogue, the trauma in this story is never far from view. It haunts the world of the book.
The book moves between points of view and events without much set up, the years skip around, and sometimes its hard to know exactly where you are in the story. This was challenging for me to connect with, though on a second or third reading, I think this complexity would add so much to my enjoyment of the book. Like in a good scary movie or thriller, Morrison is leaving us Easter eggs to pick up on, only when we’re revisit her novel.
There is a lot to unpack and look into when talking about Beloved it is not an easy read, and the subject matter is not comfortable. This book requires a commitment of the reader. The expectation of greatness from her reader is partly what makes her books so good. Toni Morrison demands you bring your full self to her work, and that you take your time, and if you do, you might just be rewarded with a story that will stay with you for life. This book is worth you time. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but if you read it with an open mind, I think there is much to appreciate about this story.
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