Original Sins

David Gates reviews Toni Morrison's “A Mercy” in The New York Times:

Toni “A Mercy” has neither the terrible passion of “Beloved” — how many times can we ask a writer to go to such a place? — nor the spirited ingenuity of “Love,” the most satisfying of Morrison’s subsequent novels. But it’s her deepest excavation into America’s history, to a time when the South had just passed laws that “separated and protected all whites from all others forever,” and the North had begun persecuting people accused of witchcraft. (The book’s most anxious moment comes when a little white girl goes hysterical at the sight of Florens and hides behind her witch-hunting elders.) Post­colonialists and feminists, perhaps even Greens and Marxists, may latch onto “A Mercy,” but they should latch with care, lest Morrison prove too many-minded for them. This novel isn’t a polemic — does anybody really need to be persuaded that exploitation is evil? — but a tragedy in which “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”

Except for a slimy Portuguese slave trader, no character in the novel is wholly evil, and even he’s more weak and contemptible than mustache-twirlingly villainous. Nor are the characters we root for particularly saintly. While Lina laments the nonconsensual deaths of trees, she deftly drowns a newborn baby, not, as in “Beloved,” to save it from a life of slavery, but simply because she thinks the child’s mother (the “mongrelized” girl who goes by the Morrisonian name of Sorrow) has already brought enough bum luck to Jacob’s farmstead. Everyone in “A Mercy” is damaged; a few, once in a while, find strength to act out of love, or at least out of mercy — that is, when those who have the power to do harm decide not to exercise it. A negative virtue, but perhaps more lasting than love.

More here.

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