April 16, 2017 at 1:38 pm Leave a comment

beloved Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988, and the author  Toni Morrison went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. it was also 41st on this list of best books of all time. With that kind of resume you might think bookgroup was destined for disappointment due to exceedingly high expectations.

Not in this case. This book delivered. It is understandably famous. It uses what you could call magic realism, fantasy or supernatural elements, to bring the real horror of American slavery to life.

Probably like a lot of people I thought I knew enough about the slave era in America. I have a longstanding interest in the politics of equality and as a result I have a much brighter view of the 20th century and much darker view of earlier centuries than most. So my view of slavery based societies, and all pre-20th century societies, whether they are based on feudal, religious, traditional or colonial arrangements is very dark. I thought I had a clear eyed view of the evil seemingly ordinary humans are capable of when there is no oversight of, or accountability for, their actions.

This book made me realise my sight was not nearly dark enough. It also opened my eyes further to the community, family and intergenerational effects of such systems of domination and oppression – the impacts of these systems at the population level for generations afterwards.

A key message the book wants to send appears to be that the real inhumanity of the slavery system is that it forces people to be complicit in their own humiliation. They become self-loathing because they feel they are constantly making decisions to accept being abused and degraded, instead of dying or going mad. Even though their only choice is death or survival they feel survival is somehow morally the wrong choice. They feel they should choose to die rather than to be treated this way. The book seems to be saying that it’s creating this feeling of self loathing that is the real evil of slavery, because it explains the intergenerational dysfunction and disaster that follows slavery.

The power of this experience is communicated through the central story of the book which is very slowly revealed piece by piece. Having recently escaped slavery, Sethe (the main character) and her children are about to be recaptured. She chooses to kill her children thinking that is better than letting them suffer the way she has. She succeeds in killing her infant daughter but not the other children.

Reading of the horror inflicted on her, and the other slaves around her, its hard, impossible really,  to feel that Sethe’s choice was wrong. Nevertheless the book goes further, it says understandable or not, right or wrong, its an act with far reaching consequences. The murdered child becomes a malevolent ghost and eventually a malevolent flesh and blood person, created from the remorse of the mother.

It seemed to me that this scenario, and the ideas it encapsulates apply to all subjugated and brutalised peoples. It helps explain the African American experience that it describes, but also the experience of indigenous populations decimated by colonial peoples, as Intergenerational trauma. How can you feel you belong to a country, and communicate that belonging to your children, when in that country your ancestors have been treated so badly they choose to kill their infant children, to protect them from such treatment? When the pain of making that decision is so strong it has the power to create a flesh and blood ghost of remorse?

AS Morrison says in the foreword to the edition i read

that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience,

However the book also has some answers. If self loathing is the problem, self love is the solution.

Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh

Bookgroupers did have some problems with the book. They felt it was hard to follow because it jumps back and forth in time and refers to many different characters, especially at the beginning. They also felt the language was difficult in places, especially because of the unfamiliar accents and language at he beginning, and later because it has passages of unpunctuated stream of consciousness style writing. Several Bookgroupers also found the fantasy and/or supernatural elements confusing, especially who or what is Beloved – the flesh and blood ghost of remorse.

I loved it. If you feel like reading a genuine prize winning literary classic, this one is definitely worth the effort.



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