Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved is an exploration of the legacy of slavery in the immediate post-emancipation era. Set in 1870s Ohio, near Cincinnati, it is the story of Sethe who escaped slavery from Kentucky, her daughter Denver who was born during the escape, and the legacy of the death of her older daughter, Beloved. The story is told in parallel timelines with reference to the 1850s when Sethe escaped to her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, to the slightly earlier story of Baby being bought out of slavery through Sethe's husband Halle (who does not make it to Ohio). A character who straddles these timelines is Paul D Garner, who was enslaved with Sethe in Kentucky and moves in with her in the 1870s. Garner's name is a reference to the inspiration for the story: Margaret Garner, who in 1856 murdered a child to prevent her being taken back into slavery.
There is a lot of discomfort awaiting a reader of Beloved and the murder of Beloved is only one such aspect. The flashbacks to the escape and to the experience of being enslaved are a reminder of just how harrowing slavery was and how its impacts did not cease with emancipation. Beloved is also a ghost story in that it opens with Sethe and Denver convinced that their house is haunted by the ghost of Beloved. When Paul D moves in the ghost disappears, but then a young woman called Beloved appears who would be about the age of Sethe's daughter beloved. Is this Beloved returned from the grave, a coincidence, or a confidence trick? That question is one that the reader has to carry through the novel.
The novel is written in a wonderfully poetic way that combined with the possible magical realism will not appeal to all readers, but for me it was a compelling read. Like other Morrison novels it tells a story, but also conveys a message about the African American experience. There is a very clear theme here of slavery as a trauma that cannot be buried and that some people will cope with the legacy better than others. It is a worthwhile read that brings out these socio-political themes well, while being told in mesmerizing style.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved