, September 05, 2006
(view all comments by dosgatosazules)
There is no way I could praise this book highly enough, nor stress how I wish I could make everyone read this novel. I'll give away as little as possible of the plot: Sethe is an escaped slave, living in Cincinnatti, Ohio, with the only child left not chased off by the ghost of her baby daughter. (You learn this in the first few pages.) The ghost is angry, and through the course of the novel you learn why, as you learn the circumstances of the baby's death and the reason why Sethe and her only remaining child choose to stay in the house and learn to coexist. They live in a certain purgatory: no friends or visitors, for layers of reasons you will learn, no lovers or husbands either, and no one's company but their own. Then, eighteen years after Sethe ran away from slavery, up onto the porch walks Paul D, another of the slaves on that same Kentucky farm. His arrival stirs up the past, opens up Sethe's secrets while it gets her thinking about the risk of loving again, and opens the door to something even more dangerous. Not a few days after he shows up, another visitor comes to the house: a woman with skin smooth as a baby's, brand-new shoes she does not know how to tie, a voice with a cadence "just outside music", and a name very familiar to Sethe: Beloved. The name on her baby's gravestone.
And yet to describe the plot is to tell you very little at all about why everyone should read this breathtaking book. This novel is about memory, loss, the risk it takes to love your children when they may be sold out from under you, the fight to preserve something like humanity when you are legally considered less than a human being. The terrible choices you have to make, and then live with, when you do allow yourself to love anyone under these conditions. And what it means to try to make a life when every day starts with, as Sethe calls it, "the work of beating back the past."
Read it for the amazing, singular cadence and voice of the narration alone: look at even the very first lines. "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom." Or this, from the first chapter: "... suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves."
And for imagery you can't forget: a slave who stops speaking English because "there was no future in it." A pool of red light cast by the baby ghost. A back so scarred over with whip scars it resembles a tree. A man so horrified by what he secretly observes in a barn loft that he slips out of reality altogether, his journey sealed by the butter he smears on his face, over and over.
Yes, this novel is about heartbreaking pain and the mystery of why some endure while others break. But for all that, it never stops being beautiful, and there is hope too, hidden in these pages, and the ghost of a chance that its characters might find love, and some semblance of peace, and a way to live with the past.
This book can be difficult, both for its subject matter and its narration: it is not told in linear fashion, but unfolds the way memory does: it comes out in pieces and incomplete, and you have to piece it together. But it's worth the effort, ten times over. This book made an indelible impression on me over 12 years ago, and hasn't stopped since. Read it, read it, read it ... and then go back and read it again.