Toni Morrison’s most famous novel is Beloved, which is about a woman named Sethe who escapes slavery, gives birth on the road, makes it to Ohio where her children and mother-in-law are already, and then everything gets worse. She’s haunted for eighteen years by the ghost of her toddler, a little girl who moves things and torments the residents. We’re told that Sethe’s two sons leave upon first appearance of the ghost, whom Sethe calls Beloved (because that’s all that’s on her daughter’s headstone), but her youngest child, Denver, stays. Then, Paul D., who was a slave on the same plantation as Sethe, appears out of nowhere after eighteen years and begins a relationship with Sethe.
It’s hard to describe the plot of Beloved. Now that I’ve finished it, I can explain it; however, that’s not how Morrison writes. Indirectly we get the full story of why Denver still lives with her mother, why Paul D. has returned, why the sons left, and we get to experience Beloved the ghost incarnate. I read this novel with Biscuit, and as I told her, there is a writing style I describe as “toilet flushing.” Basically, there is a heart to the story, but the author doesn’t write us in that direction. No, they circle around it — around, around, around — before we get there, typically in the last chapter. Toni Morrison includes flashbacks, hints, suggestions, vague allusions . . . and they’re all out of order. For no reason that makes the book better is Beloved disorganized. In fact, I told Biscuit that if we weren’t reading it together, I would have DNF’d.
In some cases, I had to read the same 2-3 sentences about five times (no exaggeration) to figure out what was even going on. Have you ever read a poem and got zero understanding out of it, but then the poet tells you their inspiration, or what they were going for, and then you can totally understand the allusions in the poem? That’s how a big chunk of Beloved is, and I saw no reason to have to fight so hard the whole way through. The writing wasn’t more poetic, it was more obtuse.
I will say that Morrison writes about slavery differently from many others, differently in that it was more brutal, and likely more realistic. I’m accustomed to whipping and raping, and as pained as I am to write this, it’s so expected in a novel about slavery in the U.S. that I feel anger that too-quickly dissipates. Morrison, on the other hand, either writes straight about or alludes to other horrifying acts perpetrated against the slaves in Beloved, and it’s all the more personal because the plantation has seven people captive there, not hundreds. While my brain can stupidly tra-la-la past atrocities I’ve read repeatedly, Morrison wasn’t going to let people like me get away with forgetting.
Ultimately, Beloved is a book about why people need to forget, though. I had this naive idea that if someone can heal their heart, they can heal themselves. But in Sethe’s and Paul D.’s worlds, an open heart is a death sentence. I thought Beloved returning would dissolve Sethe’s guilt and make things right for this mother. If only the titular character made more sense, though. Was her goal to harm Paul D. and Sethe? To come back in the flesh and live happily with her own mother? Morrison’s character was so inconsistent that Biscuit and I shrugged and realized we got one main thing out of reading Beloved: now we can be pretentious and say, “Of course we’ve read Beloved! Haven’t you??”