BookBrowse Reviews A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

A Mercy

A Novel

by Toni Morrison

A Mercy by Toni Morrison X
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Nov 2008, 176 pages

    Aug 2009, 224 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading
Buy This Book

About this Book



A powerful tragedy by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved, set two centuries earlier in the 17th century

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.

The story begins in a recognizably Morrisonian voice. "Don't be afraid," the voice says. "My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark—weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more—but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth." Immediately what springs to mind is the incomprehensibly monstrous deed at the heart of Beloved, and we wonder: who is this woman and what has she done? Is Morrison going to take us to a place as terrible as that in Beloved? At the end of the first chapter, the voice intones, "But I have a worry. Not because our work is more, but because mothers nursing greedy babies scare me. I know how their eyes go when they choose." It couldn't be a more ominous opening.

Over the next spare 155 pages, we are given many stories of horror, cruelty, and hardship. We learn that the voice belongs to Florens, the 16-year-old slave of Rebekka Vaark. In a scene which is almost the reverse of the moment in Beloved when Sethe kills her oldest daughter rather than let her be returned to slavery, Florens comes to live with the Vaarks when her mother voluntarily offers her as payment for her master's debt, an abandonment that shadows Florens for her entire life. Rebekka, whose husband has just died, is also mistress to Lina, a native woman sold into slavery after her village was sacked, and Sorrow, an uncontrollable girl who "dragged misery like a tail," a foundling who was rescued from a shipwreck in which her father was captain and given to the Vaarks when she became pregnant at age eleven. As if seeking to represent as many different kinds of people who lived in Virginia in the 1680s as possible, Morrison rounds out their household with two white men who are indentured servants and one free African blacksmith who ultimately upsets the precarious balance of the Vaark farmstead. Each of these characters, with the notable exception of the black smithy, receives his or her own chapter, and Morrison presents each of their life stories in compelling prose utterly stripped of self-pity by the extremity of their circumstances. The remorselessness of the Atlantic slave trade and the barbarity of colonial life require extraordinary acts of everyday survival, and some of them are haunting:

"It was Lina who dressed herself in hides, carried a basket and an axe, braved the thigh-high drifts, the mind-numbing wind, to get to the river. There she pulled from below the ice enough broken salmon to bring back and feed them. She filled her basket with all she could snare; tied the basket handle to her braid to keep her hands from freezing on the trek back."

Yet the novel never gets started. The ominous story that Florens promises simply never happens. The action of the novel is confined to just a few days in the spring of 1690, interrupted by deep plunges into history. And the narration of that action is given over to Florens, the only character to speak in first person and present tense. But nothing happens in those few days to warrant the dread of that first chapter. Rebekka falls ill and sends Florens to find the blacksmith, with whom she is passionately in love. He cures Rebekka but fights with Florens, rejecting her for her slavish lovesickness. Morrison gradually reveals that Florens' narration is a love letter to the blacksmith carved on the floor of the Vaark house with a nail. Florens' voice is almost ridiculous in its mixture of high romanticism and clear-eyed naiveté:

"You probably don't know anything at all about what your back looks like whatever the sky holds: sunlight, moonrise. I rest there. My hand, my eyes, my mouth. The first time I see it you are shaping fire with bellows. The shine of water runs down your spine and I have shock at myself for wanting to lick there."

In Beloved, the central horrific act is narrated many times but never directly. It is reported to the reader in flashes and shards who begins to "remember" it much like Sethe herself does. But in A Mercy, that same elision or deferment works against the novel's own purpose. Destroyed by the blacksmith's rejection, Florens attacks him first with a hammer and then with his hot tongs, bringing about the blood of the novel's second sentence. But this seemingly climatic scene is reported to us after the fact, and we never learn what happens after the blood begins to flow. Florens flees back to the Vaark household to scratch out her tale, a tale that we never fully experience and whose point we never quite get. I don't mean to suggest that Morrison's novel would have been stronger with more melodramatic conflict and bloodshed; instead, I would have liked to haunt her characters as they perceive their world and make decisions about how to tame it, rather than simply have their actions reported to me.

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

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2009, and has been updated for the September 2009 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked A Mercy, try these:

  • The Revisioners jacket

    The Revisioners

    by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

    Published 2020

    About this book

    More by this author

    Following her National Book Award–nominated debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton returns with this equally elegant and historically inspired story of survivors and healers, of black women and their black sons, set in the American South.

  • The Long Song jacket

    The Long Song

    by Andrea Levy

    Published 2011

    About this book

    More by this author

    The author of Small Island tells the story of the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom in nineteenth-century Jamaica.

We have 6 read-alikes for A Mercy, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
More books by Toni Morrison
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: The Postcard
    The Postcard
    by Anne Berest
    Anne Berest's The Postcard — with an elegant translation from the French by Tina Cover &...
  • Book Jacket
    by Jennifer Saint
    Few cultures in history mastered the art of tragedy quite like the ancient Greeks. And very few ...
  • Book Jacket: Salvage This World
    Salvage This World
    by Michael Farris Smith
    In the near-future universe of Michael Farris Smith's Salvage This World, life-threatening ...
  • Book Jacket: Where Coyotes Howl
    Where Coyotes Howl
    by Sandra Dallas
    Where Coyotes Howl may appear to be a classically conventional historical novel — a wide-eyed ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The First Conspiracy
by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch
A remarkable and previously untold piece of American history—the secret plot to kill George Washington

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Little Italian Hotel
    by Phaedra Patrick

    Sunny, tender and brimming with charm, The Little Italian Hotel explores marriage, identity and reclaiming the present moment.

Win This Book
Win Girlfriend on Mars

30 Copies to Give Away!

A funny and poignant debut novel that skewers billionaire-funded space travel in a love story of interplanetary proportions.



Solve this clue:

Y S M Back A I'll S Y

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.