In the 1680s the Atlantic slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in flesh, he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady. Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new masters house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.
There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl whos spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.
A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.
I was quite disappointed by A Mercy. There, I've said it. It feels
sacrilegious to speak ill of such a worthy book and such an exalted author. But
if a novel can be at once worthwhile and disappointing, this one is.
Morrison beautifully, terribly renders the world of America in the 1680s. It is
a world in which it is lawful for a man to beat his wife after nine o'clock, a
world in which the sight of a black girl is still rare enough to cause white
children to scream and white women to cross themselves. But it is a world in
which none of Morrison's characters—black, white or native; free, indentured or
enslaved—have agency, and therefore it is a world without action. Horrific
events and acts of small mercies occur. The characters move, but it is the
zeitgeist blowing through them that animates them. A Mercy is a like a
three-dimensional oil painting that was made to illustrate a point: "There is no
protection. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal.
Even if scars form, the festering is ever below." (Reviewed by Amy Reading).
The Times (UK) A Mercy is so enthralling that you’ll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.
The Washington Post - Ron Charles
This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss.
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable.
Luminous and complex... . Some of Morrison's best writing in years.
Boston Sunday Globe
Morrison here is seeking some deeper truth about what she once called 'the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.' Some regard this novel as a kind of prelude to Beloved, but the author has even more provocative ideas at play... . In writing about the horror of slavery, she finds a kind of ragged hope.
Morrison doesn't write traditional novels so much as create a hypnotic state of poetic intoxication. You don't read A Mercy, you fall into a miasma of language and symbolism." - Deirdre Donahue,
The Miami Herald
A grand tragedy writ in miniature ... A Mercy is kindled by characters who are complex and vulnerable, full of what she describes in Beloved as 'awful human power.'
The New York Times Book Review (cover)
[A Mercy] is [Morrison's] 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... In Morrison's latest version of pastoral, it's only mercy or the lack of it that makes the American landscape heaven or hell, and the gates of Eden open both ways at once.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Morrison's short, magisterial new novel testifies to the art of a writer able to conjure near-unimaginable lives sunk three centuries ago in the infant American colonies...Morrison flings us into a dread past. But A Mercy pulls us, shuddering, onto the banks of meaning.
O, The Oprah Magazine
Memorable ... lyrical ... A miraculous tale of sorrow and beauty... American history, the natural world, and human desire collide in a series of musical voices, distinct from one another- unmistakably Morrisonian in their beauty and power- that together tell this moving and morally complicated tale.
Better seen as a lengthy prose poem than a novel, this allusive, elusive little gem adds its own shadowy luster to the Nobel laureate's shimmering body of work.
Starred Review. Magical, mystical, and memorable, Morrison's poignant parable of mercies hidden and revealed belongs in every library.
Starred Review. Morrison's unflinching narrative is all the more powerful for its relative brevity; it takes hold of the reader and doesn't let go until the wrenching final-page crescendo.
Starred Review. Brilliant...Riveting, even poetic..a fitting companion to her highly regarded Beloved.
The Sunday Times (London)
Magnificent ... A Mercy is so enthralling that you'll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by HS wow One of the worst books I have ever read. I do not like her style of writing. its a very "beating around the bush" style of writing. 100 pages in and I still am not interested. I would pretty much pay someone NOT to read this book.
Rated of 5
by Michael Eh I found this book to be wandering and vague. At times it could be gripping, but many of the attempts to be 'poetic' fell flat with me.
Rated of 5
by Amy Dull as Dirt Maybe the most boring of all Morrison's books. I don't like the style of writing, but the plot is also very dry. Most of us don't know too much about Virginia in the late 1600's which would have helped. Not engaging at all.
Rated of 5
by Renee A Mercy No one can cut through to the heart of America's dark past like Toni Morrison. The book's perspective floats between the characters creating a full, intricate picture of life when the lines were blurred between indentured servant and slave. People... Read More
American Slavery in the Seventeenth Century Toni Morrison locates her novel at a moment of transition in American
history, the moment when, to use the historian Ira Berlin's terms, a society
with slaves became a slaveholding society. British colonialists had owned
African slaves ever since the founding of Jamestown, but in the beginning of the
seventeenth century, slavery was just one form of labor among many and
slave-owners were few.
No laws yet existed to govern this relationship, and African slavery was not yet
a legally defined identity. In the mid-Atlantic region, black slaves were
treated similarly to white servants and the two groups forged solidarities
across racial lines. Neither group was treated well, but slavery was not yet
legally protected as a special category of human exploitation in which masters
trumped even courts in determining their slaves' lives. Slaves, like servants
and indeed like the owners who labored next to them in their tobacco fields,
could expect Sundays, half of Saturdays, and holidays off. Slaves...
A black farmer, bootmaker and former slave becomes proprietor of his own plantation, as well as of his own slaves, in this ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present. Excerpt contains content exclusive to BookBrowse.
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