This review was kind of a hard one to write, because my feelings on the book are a little mixed. There’s part of me that can recognize the genius in this book and see why it has become part of the American literature elite, why it appears on so many syllabi, and how it has received all the accolades that it has. But the other part of me just didn’t enjoy it at all. And not for the obvious reason – that the subject matter is about as enjoyable as a funeral – but because it just wasn’t a novel that really got to me the way I like a serious novel to get to me. It was so confusing and vague that I had a hard time knowing exactly what was happening, and that seriously impacted how I experienced it.
The book is a strange mixture of slavery narrative, a story about motherhood and risking everything to protect your children, and a ghost story about mistakes coming back to hurt you. The part about the slavery is less a history lesson and more of a backdrop, which is a common criticism of the book but not one that bothered me. What bothered me was that I couldn’t follow the through-line at all. I ended up having to read a summary in order to figure out exactly what happened, because it wasn’t clear at all. There were some parts that were repeated over and over so there was no mistaking what had happened, but I felt like those were ancillary to the story. The actual story of what happened to these people was vague and fuzzy. This was, perhaps, by design, because the book is just as much about memory as it is about anything else, and how trauma shapes those memories. It was, however, a fatal flaw for me, because without understanding the true horror of what happened, the act that Sethe takes to protect her children (namely, murder of one and attempted murder of the rest of her children when the slave owner finds her) seemed too rash and almost inexplicable. Almost as though the event was just tossed in for sport or sensationalism, when the entire book actually hangs on this one incident.
The infanticide is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who escaped and killed her two-year-old daughter rather than let her experience the horror of slavery. Toni Morrison based her entire story on this, and of a vision or idea she had of a ghost coming out of the water – the ghost of the child that had been killed, all grown up and back for … revenge? Reunion? It’s hard to say. This is not the part that turned me off. It’s admittedly the minutiae – what happened to Halle? Was Sethe raped? Why does it mean that they “took her milk”? Was Beloved real? Did she become pregnant? How exactly did the escape from Sweet Home go? Did I even read this book, or did I just imagine that I did? The mysticism and vagueness of some of the plot doesn’t bother me as much, but I have to say that I was so confused that I didn’t really grasp what I was reading.
I don’t like to waste time re-reading books, because there are so many books to read and one’s life is only so long. But I feel like in order to understand the basic plot of this book, several readings are in order. And if you have to really dig into a summary or re-readings in order to understand the general thread of what happened, I feel like that is a major failure.
I find it difficult to really pinpoint or make clear what I disliked about this book so much, because as I describe it, it seems powerful and amazing. But that just did not carry over in the actual reading of it. Important Novels (with an uppercase I) should have a power to sweep you away and give you something to turn over in your mind, but all the thoughts I had over this book were less of thinking about issues that it could have raised and more about what exactly did I just read?
This book fulfills the based on a true story requirement for the challenge.