The genius of Toni Morrison lies in her openings: Plunged into an unfamiliar time and place and confronted by a dramatic question, the reader falls under the spell of a narrator who cannot rest until her story is told, heard, and deeply felt.
Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy, begins with the voice of Florens, a slave girl, chosen by her mother over her baby brother to be traded as pay for her master’s debt: “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done.” Florens’s response to this sacrifice, the “mercy” of the title, raises the questions upon which the novel turns: Did Florens’s mother see a better life for her daughter with the kind-eyed Jacob Vaark (“a ratty orphan become landowner”)? Will Florens survive the profound sense of abandonment she feels?
Seventy-seven-year-old Morrison sets her story down in primeval America in the 1680s, before slavery is institutionalized but when the law grants “license to any white to kill any black for any reason.” Any social comfort between laborers and landowners is crushed. Morrison’s opener—the confession of a slave girl—becomes the foundation for a creation myth: the genesis of racist America, with Adam and Eve played by the Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark and his mail-order bride, Rebekka, who arrives by boat, grateful to have escaped the squalor of London. Cast out of this new American Eden as unbelievers and orphans, they build a “family” of the unwanted: Lina, a Native-American servant who “cawed with birds” and whose village was decimated by smallpox; Sorrow, a “mongrelized” girl who had “never lived on land” and washes up on shore after a shipwreck; Will and Scully, indentured gay servants; and Florens, the confessor.
Justifiably billed as a “prelude” to Beloved (which won her the Pulitzer), A Mercy takes on familiar Morrisonian themes: the agony and ecstasy of motherhood; the spirit-crushing state of being “owned” (whether by masters or mental illness or love); the taming of wild women (think also of Sula). Mother love shifts around in this novel, from blood to bond: Sorrow changes her name to Complete after giving birth (father unknown). Lina mothers the broken-hearted Florens until the girl loses herself to the unrequited love of a free African blacksmith. Rebekka, whose four young children each die, mothers Lina until Jacob dies. Jacob’s death reveals the tenuousness of their bonds as each slips into her own loneliness. “Such were the ravages of Vaark’s death. And the consequences of women in thrall to men or pointedly without them.”
Morrison uses multiple narrators expertly (think also of Jazz), moving easily from third person to first, changing dictions and emphasis, fearlessly closing the novel with the previously unheard voice of Florens’s mother. By doing so, she circles hawk-like around the moment of mercy, exploding its six degrees of repercussion from one life to the next, asking whether forgiveness or salvation is possible. Rebekka, reflecting on her passage across the Atlantic, thinks to herself, “So to have sailed to this clean world . . . to lie festering on a perfect spring night felt like a jest. Congratulations Satan.”
Although there’s levity with a riotous tea party among the bawdy women who travel steerage with Rebekka, A Mercy is a sad, pessimistic novel, suspicious of the early makings of a democracy, unrelenting in leaving the unwanted unloved. And yet, the signature elements of Morrison’s fiction—love turned inside out, history flipped on its head, biblical references, folk wisdom, ghosts, and an old-fashioned bloody, heart-wrenching tale—bring great relief. After the disappointing last two books, Paradise and Love, Toni Morrison’s ninth novel roars across the arc of America’s birth, wielding a prowess to haunt the reader as only Morrison can do.