Friday 26 October 2012

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison..

Goodreads Description

It is impossible to do justice to a novel as complex and wonderful as this in one blog post, especially as I don't want to spoil the story for you. This quite rightly is considered a "Great American novel" and I can only touch on the impact it had on me. Beloved is not an easy read, partly because it deals unflinchingly with slavery and partly because of its structure which moves backwards and forwards in time and between characters, but it is absolutely worth the effort. I am lucky that I can read relatively quickly, which meant I was able to keep the story threads in my head and so did not have too much problem following the story. It seemed to me that this was a book that could not work with a linear story structure. By layering the revelation of the circumstances of the baby's death, we get differing viewpoints until we focus in on Sethe's experience and the shock does not overwhelm us, and we can begin to grasp how a mother might do the unthinkable. 

How can we understand a woman "losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit out like a fishbone", whose value is seen in terms of being a broodmare, for whom love of children, men or anything is dangerous because they can be snatched away or killed at any time? How can we understand this - and yet Toni Morrison helps us to begin to understand. As in the description above the book is often described as a story about slavery and yet it is more than that: it is unflinching about what slavery does to all involved, but it is also about women and women's love.  

The book is also a brilliant ghost story. If ever there was a child who has a right to be a poltergeist then the anonymous baby is that child. Just when everything seems to be beginning to come good for Sethe, a young woman arrives who gives her name as Beloved, which is also the description on the gravestone. Is she the baby come back to life as the adult she would have been had she lived?  

In lesser hands this book could have been full of anger about the abomination of slavery, it could have been simplistic in its portrayal, but it isn't: it is humane and complex. All the main characters in the book are beautifully drawn. Morrison doesn't portray the black people in the book as "good guys" but as human beings -flawed and damaged. As for the whites in the book she does show their appalling cruelty,  but she also shows white people who helped the escapees. Again these people are complex, they too have flaws - a paternalistic attitude. The exception to this is the poor white girl, who despite talking in the language of racism (which of course is all she knows) responds to Sethe as a woman, saving Sethe's life and delivering Sethe's baby. 

I cannot review this book without talking about the writing styles in the book. I have seen some readers' reviews which criticize Morrison's use of different voices, this they felt made the book difficult to read. I didn't find that to be the case, even though I am a British white middle-class female and so would be expected to have difficulties with prose written in the voice of an uneducated Southern black slave. It took a bit of getting used to, but I found it relatively easy. The only bit that caused me to falter was the semi-poetry used by Beloved to talk about her past (in the land of the dead? on a slave ship? confined to a house?) but that has to be unclear and impressionistic. 

Another criticism leveled at the book is that the characters are not sympathetic, that the reviewer did not identify or like them. This seems to be a very narrow view of what is required in a book. Why should you like the main character? Why should you entirely empathize with them? 

And so finally I come to my usual question about is this magic realism and if so what can we learn from it. The answer is yes, it is. The ghost element in the book is never resolved. You are given a rational alternative to Beloved's identity, but you are never told if it is true. In fact the book seems to suggest that the ghost explanation is the right one, something that Toni Morrison supports in the BBC interview (see link below).  It is often said of magic realism that it is a literary form which gives expression to the story of the oppressed - never is the more the case than in Beloved.

BBC World Book Club - Toni Morrison - download radio programme here

Friday 19 October 2012

My New Book

I should have been publishing my review of Beloved by Toni Morrison this week. Should have, but I'm not. You will have to wait until next week for the review. The reason is I have been focusing on the release of the second book in my trilogy The Healer's Shadow. The trilogy is magic realism, but the new book Love of Shadows has virtually no magic in it.

When I published the first book in the trilogy Girl in the Glass I was told by several people that I was writing magic realism. As a result I started researching magic realism and so ended up starting my magic realism challenge and this blog.


Love of Shadows

"I had always felt most alive, when I was healing. Without healing I was a tin top spinning out of kilter soon to catch the ground. It took all my energy to hold myself from skidding into chaos."

But in the city of Pharsis traditional women healers are banned from practising and the penalty for breaking the law is death by hanging. After being arrested and interrogated twice Judith is careful to avoid suspicion, but then scarlet fever breaks over the city like a poisonous wave, leaving in its wake the small corpses of children. What will the young healer do?

Buying Links

Wednesday 10 October 2012

The Ladies of Grace Adieu - Susanna Clarke

Faerie is never as far away as you think. Sometimes you find you have crossed an invisible line and must cope, as best you can, with petulant princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who pass their time embroidering terrible fates or with endless paths in deep, dark woods and houses that never appear the same way twice. The heroines and heroes bedevilled by such problems in these fairy tales include a conceited Regency clergyman, an eighteenth-century Jewish doctor and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as two characters from "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Strange himself and the Raven King".
Amazon description

Over on my author's blog I have just written a post about the impact of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen had on me in my youth. Garner used the folktales of the British Isles as a source material for his novels. In addition to Garner I was addicted to reading the folk and fairytales from Britain themselves, so I came to Susanna Clarke's collection of short stories with a knowledge of their background. It meant that I enjoyed the tales in the book, but it also meant that I did not find the stories as original as perhaps other readers would and was able to see their endings where others might not. What is original is the way Clarke presents this world where the faerie lives alongside a realistic England in the early nineteenth century. The only other writer I can think of who has achieved something similar is Neil Gaiman in his story Stardust (which is referenced in Clarke's story "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse"). Clarke's writing voice is Austenesque (whilst not feeling over-forced) which adds to that impact of her magic realism. 

One of the elements in the book that appealed to me was the role of women as magic makers and the sustainers of the old magical traditions, such as the ladies in the book's title who are defending the old magic in the face of male prejudice. But the stories aren't heavy-handed about it. It does seem to me that Clarke gets the blend of comical and sinister just right.

Inevitably there are some stories which I preferred to others in the book: The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower and Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby. But my choice reflects my bias and I have read other reviews which have different favourites. I would recommend taking breaks between stories to savouring them, as I found they rewarded reflection.

I have not yet read Clarke's long (1000+ paged) novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell which is set in the same world, and I confess with my Magic Realism challenge requiring me to read and review on book a week I am not going to do so this year. But on the basis of these stories I intend to some day soon. 

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

Strange things are happening on the remote and snowbound archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land. Magical winged creatures flit around the icy bogland, albino animals hide themselves in the snow-glazed woods, and Ida Maclaird is slowly turning into glass. Ida is an outsider in these parts who has only visited the islands once before. Yet during that one fateful visit the glass transformation began to take hold, and now she has returned in search of a cure.
 Goodreads Description

Given the novel title and book description I don't think I have to issue a spoiler warning, when I say the story is about a girl Ida who has a condition in which her flesh turns to glass. Ida returns to the bleak winter landscape of St Hauda's Land - with its foul-smelling bogs and haggard woodland. She hopes to meet a man she met before, who told her about bodies of glass in the bog water. Instead she meets the young photographer Midas who is pursuing the perfect light conditions for a photograph.

Midas is emotionally damaged by his severe father, who unbeknownst to Midas had a heart of glass. For the young man the camera has become a means of looking at the world, whilst being removed from it. St Hauda's is a monochrome world - snow, gray clouds and mist. There is even an animal whose gaze turns everything white. Midas' world is likewise monochrome, until he meets Ida. The story at first seems to be a quest for a cure for Ida's condition, but is instead about Midas' transformation through the power of love back in to flesh and blood. I found myself engaged in the young couple's story, even if I wanted to shake Midas at times. Ida's resilience in the face of what is happening to her was moving - I cried at the end.

But I didn't engage with the story as much as I would have expected. The book is clearly magic realism. St Hauda is very like a group of Scottish islands, but its fauna are alien - tiny cattle with wings, jellyfish that emit a strange light as they die, the basilisk deer animal - and of course there are the glass bodies in the bogs. Strangely I felt that there was perhaps too much of the weird. We are introduced the cattle insects early on, I found them hard to believe and a bit twee nor am I sure that they were necessary. I also felt that there was not much there in terms of story and that the plotline kept being broken.  Ali Shaw's descriptions are full of beautiful similes, but I felt these sometimes got in the way - less is more. Shaw extends the story by flashbacks into Midas' childhood and the lives of his parents and that of Ida's mother's former admirer. All very good, but I don't feel that these helped the story move along and at the end I felt too much was unresolved; not that I expect magic realism novels to explain the magic.

That being said this is a book that I found myself thinking about after I had finished it and some of it is quite beautiful and indeed magical.