Beloved – Toni Morrison

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I read this book in university for a class in modernist English literature. Beloved wasn’t the only title we read that year, but it is the book that stayed by me the most. It was written in 1987 by Toni Morrison, an American author whose novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue and richly detailed African-American characters. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for this book. In 1998, the novel was turned into a movie, also titled Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey in the leading role.

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Now, you might be wondering why this book stayed with me more than the other great English classics on the list. Well, two things: the language and the story. Toni Morrison’s book is not an easy read, I’m not gonna lie. It took a while for me to get used to the language she uses. It sounded foreign to me somehow. When her characters spoke, they spoke in dialect and for some reason, that sounded less foreign. It’s difficult to explain. I had a hard time feeling pulled into the story, and I felt like Toni did it on purpose. She uses her language to make you realise the wrongness of the story, to always make you think about what you are reading and to not allow you to disappear into the book. When her characters spoke, they spoke in their own language, a dialect, that was also not always easy to understand, but it was a lot more human (if that makes sense).

Next, the story. I am not a fan of horror stories. I like a good suspense novel, a whodunit or even a mystery novel (as long as it is resolved in the book – I abhor open endings). This book was a bit in between, and very psychological at that. It gave me goosebumps and at times chilled me to the bone. Both in positive and negative ways. It also made me think. And all of that because of one, 300-page long book. I can’t really tell you guys whether or not I liked the book. Liking a story, for me, means that I am happy with the story, that I liked the characters and the way everything turned out. I love YA novels with a happy ending for example. TV shows where the couple I have been rooting for since the beginning end up together, I like those (even if everything in between sucks). Books that make me do a happy dance because I’m so happy with how everything turned out, I like those. A good ending can definitely make or break a story for me.

“Something that is loved is never lost.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved

But when we look at Morrison’s Beloved, I can’t tell you that I liked it. Because I didn’t. The ending didn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow, almost nobody ended up being happy, nobody got their happily ever after. But, and it is a big but, I am so glad that I read it. This book really had an impact on me. It is based on a real story of a slave girl running away from her masters to the free state of Ohio. It gave me insight into what slavery was really like, and, maybe even more important, what it could do to people both physically and mentally. (I’m not American, slavery isn’t as ingrained into our history and culture as it is there. We aren’t really taught about it in school in much detail.) And I definitely recommend it. If you are looking for a book that will affect you, that will shock you at times, and that will make you think – pick up Beloved. You will have to invest a little bit of time to really read it carefully, because you don’t thumb through it quickly. But it is worth it, I think.

Now, what is the story about? I don’t want to spoil too much, so here is a little summary. The main character is Sethe, an African-American women, living in Cincinnati with her daughter Denver. Sethe used to be a slave, living at a plantation called Sweet Home, with her husband Halle and a number of other black slaves. She has 3 children and is pregnant with a 4th when she decides she has had enough and plans to run away. She succeeds in doing so and ends up in Cincinnati with her husband’s mother. However, her owner sends men to pick her up, so she gathers her children in the garden shed where she plans to kill them all to send them to a better place. The men find her holding her two-year-old daughter whose throat she has just slit.  Sethe buries her daughter, engraving her tombstone with one word, Beloved. As for the rest, that you’ll have to read for yourselves.

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved

Morrison has won many awards for Beloved, and it is considered as one of her most accomplished novels. However, the book was never universally  hailed as a success. Critics and reviewers have proven to be very divided over Morrison’s book. It’s too sentimental and sensational, it compares slavery to genocide, it is overwritten, it’s a failed ghost story… Many critics find faults with the book. But just as many critics laud the book as a profound and extraordinary act of imagination. They value the layers and themes in the book, Toni’s attempt to show what slavery was really like and much more. I belong in the second camp: I applaud Toni for this book, it is a truly intriguing and impressive work of fiction. Most of the people I know who took the time to really read and understand the book agree, though none have the same reasons why they like the book.

Have you read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, either for school or outside? What did you think? Loved it, or hated it? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.

Happy reading,

Loes M.

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