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31st March
2009
written by Steph
Have mercy on yourself and read this one!

Have mercy on yourself and read this one!

After quite the hiatus (in part due to self-imposed restrictions, but largely influenced by long waiting lists at the public library), I return to reading contenders in this year’s Tournament of Books.  In a way, my reading of A Mercy couldn’t have come at a better time, as today it was named champion in the 2009 Tournament of Books. Reviews of A Mercy have been largely positive, but it has not gone unscathed.  Some have criticized it as being “Toni Morrison lite”, perhaps a function of its relatively small heft (weighing in at a scant 167 pages), but it may also have something to do with the format of the novel as well.  A Mercy is a series of chapter-long character sketches that alternate with a stream-of-consciousness style narrative from the ostensible lead character, Florens (I call her the lead, simply because she is devoted multiple chapters, whereas all other individuals in the novel only get a solitary chapter to each tell their tales).  The story takes place in the late 1600s/early 1700s in the South East (Virginia and Marlyand), revolving around a Dutch farmer, his wife, and the three slaves they keep (Florens, Sorrow, and Lina), but also features a good deal of flashback and retrospective narrative as well.  Through each character’s story, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the shackles of slavery, the various ways one can become a slave, as well as what it means to be free. Sounds like heavy stuff, right?  In a way, it certainly is, as those who are familiar with Morrison knows that she writes incredibly dense prose.  A Mercy is no different, though I will say that the alternating chapters do lighten the reader’s load.  Only Florens’s story is told in the first-person perspective, and while the language in these segments is dense and befuddling at times, I found the third-person narratives that were interspersed to be straightforward, and a bit of a mental reprieve (perhaps Morrison took mercy on her readers?).  Morrison’s poetry still weaves its way through these segments, but it doesn’t necessarily ensnare and bind you the way Florens’s narrative can at times.  I liked the alternation, and I liked the format of only spending one chapter with each character.  The more you read of A Mercy, the more is revealed, the more the characters and their stories and their lives overlap, the better it gets.  I like that all you get are a few brushstrokes for each character, that for as much that was revealed, equal amounts are left unstated, forever left to mystery.  Leaving things unresolved, unfinished, broken, gave me things to think on, rather than merely providing me with answers to think over or not, but to probably forget.  Instead, A Mercy is a book I’d love to discuss with friends and fellow readers, and yes, one I’d like to read again (I kind of wish I could read it all over again, right now, because I think I'd like it even more the second time around). Given the topic of A Mercy, many people have felt compelled to draw parallels to what many consider to be Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved.  Having never read Beloved, I can’t do this for you, and maybe I was well-served by not having anything to compare it to.  What I can say is that I thought the book was haunting and passionate, the writing hazy and intoxicating.  It is the kind of book that the more I think about it, the more I like it.  Do I think it is the best book I’ve ever read?  No.  It’s probably not even the book I’ve enjoyed most this year.  But I fully believe A Mercy was worth every second I spent reading it, and it attempts (and I would say, successfully achieves) to do something with its language, with its format, that I think more novels should strive for.   It’s not a perfect book, but much of what people consider its flaws never really bothered me very much.  Several people have mentioned that they didn't feel the need to read A Mercy compulsively, or that for the first part of the book, they felt they could put it down and walk away, leaving it unfinished indefinitely and not think of it again.  My experience was different; I admit that the beginning is jumbled and confusing, and this isn't a book that leads to frantic "what happens next?!?" flipping of the pages, but I was pretty much hooked from the getgo.  Reading the book was pleasurable, and I just found the whole thing so immensely satisfying.  Reading Song of Solomon earlier this year, I flagged Morrison as an author to read more of in the future.  After finishing A Mercy, upon entering the used bookstore on Saturday, I zipped straightaway to the M section to see if I could find more Morrison to read; I’m now determined to read my way through her back catalogue, and you can be sure that when I can purchase a copy of A Mercy at a reasonable price, I will.  Reading Morrison’s writing is as humbling as it is gratifying, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of her talents.  I never would have thought it prior to 2009, but I daresay Toni Morrison has just catapulted her way onto my coveted list of favorite authors.  Well done, madam. I think Mary Roach put it best in her commentary for today’s match-up between A Mercy and City of Refuge:
Morrison wins, even though the last six pages of her book have, through some tragic editing decision or printing snafu, appeared as the first six pages, forcing you to begin the book in a state of deep confusion and irritation. By page 30, however, you are over it. You’re under her spell. Writing like this is beyond the grasp of mortal authors.
Rating: 4 out of 5

9 Comments

  1. 03/31/2009

    I’m glad you liked it Steph! I’m also reading through all her books.. just received Paradise in the mail today, in fact. I’m waiting for the paperback of A Mercy or a used hardcover, whichever I find first. Like you always say: beggars can’t be choosers. 😀

    This is indeed likely to be compared to Beloved, given that they have the same theme, but somehow I have less expectations for this one, which might help in appreciating it more, I guess.

  2. 03/31/2009

    I’m waiting to reads this one, Steph. I enjoy reading insights a lot. The guy at the bookstore kept telling me this is like a under-the-breath version, a reprieve, of Beloved, but with more intensity because it took place in an earlier time. Like Claire has mentioned, I do not have high hope that A Mercy would match the brilliance and flair of Beloved, because beloved’s singularity is unmatched.

  3. 03/31/2009

    @ Claire: I’ve heard some people say that some of Morrison’s more recent novels have not stood up to the quality of her earlier works, so at the moment I’m not sure how I’m best proceeding. Should I read some of her more recent stuff and save her “masterpieces” for later so that the other novels don’t pale in comparison? Or should I try to go roughly chronologically? I’m torn! I’d be up for getting A Mercy in hard or paperback – it will really depend which shows up at the used bookstore first!
     
    @ Matt: I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on this one when you get to it. The consensus seems to be that this is a strong showing for Morrison, but as you said, Beloved is unparalleled. I think so long as you can go in and approach this as novel with as open mind as possible then it will not disappoint you.

  4. 04/01/2009

    I’m so glad A Mercy won the TOB! I haven’t read it yet, as I’ve been reading her work chronologically, but look forward to reading it in time. So far, my favourite Morrison book is The Bluest Eye- short, searingly angry, hard to forget.

  5. 04/01/2009

    @ Sarah: The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s first novel, right? Which other ones have you read (or, which one are you up to)? I am seriously thinking of going in reverse chronological order, since it sounds like her earlier works are considered better… re: ToB, there are still a few books that competed that I’d like to read, but of the ones that I read, I definitely enjoyed A Mercy best. I’m thinking I’ll still read The White Tiger and Netherland… Maybe one day I’ll read The Northern Clemency, too.

  6. 04/02/2009

    I have heard so many good things about this book. I am thinking of making this my first read by Morrison. I am glad you liked it and am looking forward to reading it.

  7. 04/02/2009

    Zibilee, I think this would be a perfectly fine Morrison to start off with. I do think it was quite a bit more accessible than Song of Solomon, and plenty of Morrison’s fans enjoy this one quite a lot. It gives you a good sense of the type of writer she is, so you an prepare yourself for her other more famous works. I really enjoyed it a lot.

  8. 04/06/2009

    I went through a Toni Morrison phase in high school, reading Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Sula, and maybe a few others. Haven’t read A Mercy yet. I absolutely loved Beloved. A few years later I read it again and found it painfully violent. I think it’s time for another reread. Then I’ll give A Mercy a try. I hope I like as much as you did. Sounds like another powerful winner!

  9. 04/06/2009

    @ Rebecca: If I may, I would recommend you read A Mercy BEFORE you re-read Beloved, only because most people who have found fault with A Mercy tend to do so because they can’t get Beloved out of their minds. I didn’t have that problem going in obviously, but I think that the more you can approach A Mercy as its own novel, the more you can appreciate it in its own right.

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