A heart-wrenching, eerie classic.
This book is a modern classic, and rightly so. There’s nothing I’m about to say which hasn’t already been said. That said, let’s get on with my gushing (I’m not even going to include a lowlights section because there aren’t any).
The story starts in the late Antebellum period in what would become the United States. The scope is large- ranging from Kentucky to Carolina and Georgia, from the immediate pre-Civil War years, to the Civil War and its aftermath for black Americans. Sethe is a slave on a farm called Sweet Home, where she labours with a handful of men including Paul D and her husband Halle, her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and her children, Howard, Bugler, (Beloved), and soon-to-be-born Denver. The story slips in and out of different places and time periods, though much of it is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, after Sethe’s daring escape from slavery. Her husband, Halle, is nowhere to be seen and presumed dead, but Baby Suggs, Sethe and the children have managed to make it out alive and start a new life in ‘freedom’ in the North.
They move into a house on the edge of town owned by some local white abolitionists. But a month later, and a month after Denver is born, the slave catchers, the ‘schoolmaster’ from Sweet Home and some hired help, find Sethe. They want her and her children. Instead of handing herself and them over and back into slavery in the South, Sethe cuts one of her baby’s throats. The child who dies has not been given a name at this point, but Beloved will later be written on her gravestone. The slavers give up and leave- their cargo is now either dead or insane- and Sethe goes to prison but is spared the death penalty via the efforts of the local black community and the white abolitionists, the Bodwins.
They live, shunned, until Baby Suggs dies and, 18 years after the awful events at 124, Paul D finds Sethe. Having known each other most of their lives at Sweet Home, they start up a relationship and he moves in with her and her only remaining daughter Denver, the boys having fled aged 13- understandably traumatised by the infanticide they had witnessed in the garden shed. In fact, had a family friend named Stamp Paid not stopped Sethe, she would have killed all her children rather than hand them back into slavery, and everyone knows this.
However, one day after visiting the carnival, Paul D, Sethe and Denver find a mysterious stranger sitting on a tree stump outside their house. She is around nineteen years old and wears a high-necked dress and brand new shoes. She introduces herself as Beloved.
This novel explores the huge emotional trauma engendered by the enslavement and terrorising of black Americans in the 19th century. Each word is heavy with a melodic, keening sadness, and Morrison has beautifully captured the historical idiom and cadences of this community. She has been blessed with the gift of writerly genius, able to handle deep, heavy, traumatic topics with an incredible lightness of pen. Some chapters, especially from Beloved’s point of view, are incredibly experimental – using broken prose and poems to get her eerie, ethereal nature and raw emotion across. Morrison was inspired by a true story – of a woman who killed her child rather than hand her over to the slave catchers – and worked to humanise her into the character of Sethe, who is amazingly complex, traumatised, and suffering from PTSD and other mental illness – which, of course, didn’t really have a word back then.
The reader is left puzzled as to the true nature of Beloved. Is she an imposter who heard the story and is looking to cash in on Sethe’s guilt, like a cuckoo in the nest? Is she a ghost, a demon? Is she a figment of Sethe and Denver’s imagination, a collective projection? Is it really her daughter come back in the flesh like some kind of magic? Is it the house working some kind of evil over them? Beloved is intensely creepy- demanding, inhuman, charming, beautiful, ruthless and cruel – demanding attention and sweet things, becoming bloated on their emotion and attention.
This book is beautiful, haunting and infused with layers of intergenerational grief: of parents torn from children, scattered diasporas, helplessness and ultimate strength.