A Mercy
A Mercy
Toni Morrison
Knopf, 2008
176 pp., $23.95

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Reviewed by Jane Zwart

A Book Made of Scraps

Toni Morrison's mending.

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Admittedly, when it gets around to answering the "one question" ("who is responsible"), A Mercy is pitiless. Scuttling our assumption that time is a sufficient alibi, Morrison insists that we are responsible, that we are complicit with this country's rough past, and that our lives are sequel to slavery and the eviction of tribes. In A Mercy, as in her other novels, the past infringes on the present, and this book, read one way, gives voice to the past's ghosts.

Nonetheless, A Mercy also asks another question in the present tense, the question "can you read?" At first, this inquiry, too, may seem pitiless—since, given a broken transmission of stories, each heavy with the symbols that poverty conjures, we begin to doubt ourselves as readers. Given time, though, the question "can you read?" proves all tenderness. For, all in all, A Mercy stymies us only to tutor us. It trusts us to sew together its tatters, to figure out "a way to be in the world" that it inscribes.

And maybe, I think on reading this slender novel over again, Morrison trusts us with even more. Maybe A Mercy is also a charge to mend the American present, the inheritor of ruthlessness and grace.

Jane Zwart teaches literature at Calvin College and writes poems on the sly. Having defended her dissertation in December, she has begun, once again, to read without a pencil in hand. At least sometimes.

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