A Mercy

A Mercybook by Toni Morrison

annotation by Diane Sherlock

A Mercy is a novella comprised of six narrative voices, each giving their account of 1690 Virginia, Maryland, and their surrounds. It is not historical fiction in the sense that it does not recreate the linguistic patterns and mindset of the late 17th century. Morrison creates her own idiom and her fictive dream is more fable than history, more incantation than representation.

In an unplanned bit of synchronicity, I read Gordimer and Morrison at the same time. As in Nadine Gordimer’s A Conservationist, the white man here, Jacob Vaark, thinks more highly of himself than do his servants and slaves. Landscape is significant in both books. Morrison’s landscape, containing more than a hint of Eden and thereby framing subsequent events, overwhelms the characters. In Gordimer, that is not the case. There is no illusion of Eden and her characters hold their own.

While I appreciate the power of Morrison’s writing, I find she misses a number of interesting opportunities to shed light on the slave trade while enhancing her characters. For example, the Portuguese family in Maryland was at the end of Portuguese dominance of the slave trade. That would have added dimension and pathos to their interaction. It is unlikely their slaves came from Angola; most came from the Bight of Benin on the west coast of Africa (modern Ghana, Benin, Togo). There was also a lot of cooperation between the Dutch and the Portuguese. While Vaark may well have found his host abhorrent, it is odd that there isn’t some kind of nod to their culture of cooperation at a time when men in the colonies felt ties to their ancestral countries more strongly than after 1776. There is also the matter of the starlings, not introduced to America until 1890, noted in Harper’s review of this book as well as my own research (Ornithological Lab at Cornell) for my novel. The reason historical inaccuracy bothers me, particularly when unlikely events are substituted, is that it indicates a modern agenda that goes beyond storytelling. Then I read this about Salman Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence and it resonated:

“Historical fiction is better, much better, when it teases out the themes of a period holistically, in all their complexity, and allows parallels with our contemporary experience to develop on their own. This ensures that the novel has a philosophical integrity beyond proselytisation.”

Again, I found Gordimer allowed the reader’s experience to develop.

But back to A Mercy. Since minha mãe is Portuguese for mother as well as an orisha or spirit in an animist religion, I took notice of passages where Sorrow opines that Mistress has more of a relationship with God than the servants, as in Sorrow’s reaction when Mistress attributes healing to God, “’Ninny, she answered. ‘God alone cures. No man has such power.’ There had always been tangled strings among them. Now they were cut.” Taken together with Lina’s anger that anyone would listen to God over her, it etched away the fictive dream as the author (and take note of that bit of etymology) overtook the narrator. As with Beloved, a book I liked less (understatement), there are passages that linger with me. That’s the thing. She can write with power, but I did not wholeheartedly enjoy the book, and that undoubtedly goes back to the comment above that holds true for Rushdie as well.

In terms of the writing itself, I find that I quickly grow tired of Morrison’s extensive pattern of changing adjectives into abstract nouns, verbs as nouns, and meandering verb tenses and endless use of progressive verbs (“What I am wanting to tell” and so on by Florens). However, her use of truncation works when it is confined to sentence pattern or imagery and her prose can be very evocative. What Morrison has taught me is that truncation is a tool for the micro rather than macro level. Truncating the paragraph structure, including a character whose morals are truncated, or curtailing an image, especially after a series of images, are all powerful in context. When the technique is used on the macro level, that is, applied to the book as a whole, there tends to be too much summary and/or underwriting. At the end of the book, Florens’s mother states, “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.” No kidding. Morrison is capable of containing this thought more powerfully within the narrative without summarizing it in the mouth of a character at the end. A Mercy ends up too truncated for the story it is wanting to tell.

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