176 pp., $23.95
Reviewed by Jane Zwart
A Book Made of Scraps
Toni Morrison's novels are not seamless. Sometimes, in fact, the author binds one story to another in basting stitches loose enough to fit around a grown man's thumb. Other times, fierce knots pucker the material of her narrative, a patchwork of fabrics: the warped hound's-tooth of love and violence, the domestic calico, the rural burlap.
Beloved resembles the wedding dress that its adolescent slave Sethe improvises from pillowcases, "a dresser scarf," an old sash, and a length of mosquito netting. And A Mercy, Morrison's newest novel, is another such makeshift. Indeed, A Mercy is a novel, to borrow from one its characters, about "piecing together scraps" as "a way to be in the world."
The world in which the plot of A Mercy unfolds, though, is full of hard places to piece together "a way to be in"—particularly because, in 17th-century Maryland and Virginia, mortality is prompt and the wilderness vast. So hardship becomes a motif in this novel (smallpox and bloodshed, rape and hunger) and consolation a counter-motif. After all, in A Mercy's sparse colonial America, the carnal has two sides, and some of the characters who huddle together out of need, having little else, learn to be lavish with tenderness.
The players in this book do, however, also own their pasts (which nag at the present). Much of this slender novel, in fact, records its characters' back stories, though the telling occurs only in fits and starts even where Morrison tasks an omniscient narrator, at once exacting and fond, with recounting bygones.
This narrator tells, for instance, the story of Jacob Vaark, whom A Mercy recognizes as the pivot of its whole cast's livelihood. Anglo-Dutch, Jacob makes a poor farmer but a shrewd trader; circumstances make of him an unwilling slaveowner. What's more, he is perhaps the one character in A Mercy who wants not simply to piece together "a way to be in the world." He wants grandeur, so he fells trees to build a mansion. But he falls ill before the furniture comes, and the sickness is catching.
His wife catches it. In the present of the book, then, Rebekka, the bride Jacob more or less mail-orders from England, lies in bed, feverish. Even well, though, she is liberal with her memories. She remembers skirting her hometown's carnival executions, drinking tea in the belly of a ship, and burying her children.
As for Jacob's other, odd dependents, they surrender memory only in stuttered bits of story, their voices often taking over for the narrator. Thus, we readers must piece together their pasts: Lina has been salvaged from a tribe annihilated by a disease that "the Europes" brought, then reared by "kindly Presbyterians"; Florens was urged on Jacob Vaark by her own mother, payment for their master's bad debt; Sorrow survived, all alone, some untold catastrophe at sea, after which she washed up on shore, avowing her rescue by whales.
However their separate pasts work on them, though, urgency whets the lives of all Morrison's characters. It also sharpens her prose. Everywhere, therefore, A Mercy makes the most of what T. S. Eliot calls the "objective correlative." Morrison turns knick-knacks into symbols; her characters take shifty weather for prophecy. A Mercy's descriptions embody the abstract, so that desire and haplessness, fury and awe sculpt each character's gestures and order their chores, decreeing what they notice and remember.
Such exactitude edges this book's prose toward poetry, and thus toward a kind of trying beauty. Rebekka speaks about married love while tearing feathers from a dead swan. Florens observes of autumn, "I never before see leaves make this much blood and brass." Lina remembers a man from her village whose name "meant 'trees fall behind him.'" Even left without recourse to metaphor, A Mercy does not balk; it deems "Sorrow," remember, a fit name for a woman found half-drowned.
Yet, even while Morrison metes out losses to these characters, it is clear that she also dotes on them. She sweetens their weaknesses. She matches the wrongs they do to wrongs done them. What's more, she seconds their fondness for one another, their beauty, their canniness.
All told, this is half of what makes A Mercy compelling: it treats its characters with both unstinting scrutiny and fond indulgence, which is how they treat one another, confusing love and violence. But this narrative is also compelling for the way it treats its readers, handling them, in short, with the same mixed pitilessness and tenderness that Morrison spends on those who people her book.
To wit: having begun with a false promise in Florens' voice ("My telling can't hurt you"), the first page of this novel corners the reader: "One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?" And the rest of the book, as a kind of punishing gift, defies our ready answers to these questions.