Last week, I was taking a road trip up to Milwaukee, and I also had some indexing and sorting of teaching documents to complete. So last week’s library trip entailed some audiobook acquisitions. I’m trying to get back into that routine, since my commute will be starting in less than two weeks. I’ve been wanting to read Toni Morrison’s newest novels for a while, so A Mercy seemed like a good place to start. Plus, Morrison herself reads the audiobook. I was sold.
A Mercy examines slavery in its earliest stages in the United States, in the late 1600s. The novel opens with an act of betrayal, one upon which the psychological tension of the novel will hinge. When tradesman Jacob Vaark comes to settle the debt of the extravagant Maryland settler, he reluctantly agrees to take a slave, though he despises the trade of humans. A beautiful teen named Florens is relinquished by her mother, and she is sent to live with the Vaarks. Jacob’s wife Rebekka has experienced religious oppression, and she sees the New World as a chance to start anew. They treat Lina, a young black woman whose tribe was decimated by disease, and Sorrow, a mysterious girl who washed up on shore claiming to have been rescued by whales, as servants and equals, not slaves. Yet when a free blacksmith enters town, it sends the family’s equilibrium reeling. Florens, Lina, Sorrow, and Rebekka all hide dark secrets in their pasts, and must navigate unforeseen tragedy.
At first, I thought the novel was hard to follow. All perspectives (except Jacob’s) are told from first-person point-of-view, which reminded me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Yet the more I delved into the novel, the more drawn into the prose I became. The stories entangle and reveal complex, complicated female characters. The story is a rich undertaking in female relationships, betrayal, slavery, and love. I recommend this novel, and I recommend Morrison as a reader of her own story.