The advance reading copy of Toni Morrison’s new novel, “A Mercy,” arrived with no hype from the publisher—no comment at all about the story, the plot, the characters, simply a brief statement on the cover : “A new novel, set, like Beloved, in the American past.” That’s pretty vague, unspecific, but obviously the author’s intent (though there is more detail on her publisher’s website.) The demands are on the reader to figure it out—who is speaking, what has happened, what it all means. Thus the challenge for the critic is to honor Morrison’s wish, not reveal more than necessary, especially the plot and its surprises, what too many reviewers rely on to stretch their reviews to the required length (too often cribbing from the jacket of the finished book or the publicity package from the publisher.)
I am reminded of Doris Grumbach’s question to me years ago when we were both writing reviews of John Irving’s “The World According to Garp” (1978). Had I come to the scene involving the penis in the mouth? Fortunately, I had, but I hated the question. What right did the twenty or so of us, the reviewers who were working from galleys, have to reveal such an important incident in the novel’s plot to thousands of readers? This was in the days before publishers flooded the media with thousands of advance copies of a highly-touted book and the number of galleys was rare. Similarly, I asked myself, What right did a movie critic have to reveal the ending of the film that he or she was reviewing and thus deny that one time surprise effect that all narrative art depends upon?
Thus, to the challenge: “A Mercy” drags us back to America in 1690, well before the time of Morrison’s masterpiece, “Beloved.” Voices reach out to us often with their identities unclear until pages have turned, with sparse clues from the author as to whom we are encountering. But history and nuance reveal much more. America is a dreadful place, with religious intolerance likely to destroy everyone, with English indentured servants (prostitutes, cutthroats and other undesirables) enduring an existence only marginally better than that of the African slaves who have also been shipped here with no choice in the matter.
Even a scene in London alludes to disease, squalor and inhumanity hardly better than what slaves encountered on American plantations. And a journey across the Atlantic by a mail-order bride reeks of the similar mortality hazards of the Middle Passage for Africans. Is Toni Morrison mellowing, implying that Europeans often suffered the same afflictions as Africans brought here as slaves?
Yes and no. England may have been only marginally more civilized than Africa at the time. Moreover, although there are decent white people in this story (just as there are monsters), the strongest character is a free African, a blacksmith who knows as much about medicine as smithery.
We encounter these characters and others in a crisis during a smallpox epidemic that changes the dynamics of a slaveholder household where the master is known as Sir and the mistress simply as that. Their voices are distinct in their styles—often in eloquent prose—and the bewitching encounters of lovers, the harrowing decisions that parents must make about their children, of unbearable pain (mental and physical) that dances around the issues of loss and bereavement.
There is as much plot here as in Morrison’s finest novels, superb characterization, and always the probing questions about man’s humanity or lack thereof.
“A Mercy” is Toni Morrison’s finest novel since she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Under African Skies, Worlds of Fiction, The Ordeal of the African Writer and Academia Nuts. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org