I feel like a little shit for rating this three stars in the middle of a slew of historical England romance novels that feature colonies as exotic backdrops but I think I can reasonably separate what I think is a moving story from my personal issues with style and choice of medium.
I’ve wondered a lot at what we consider “high literature” and what makes for literature vs “easy reading.” I actively try and pick books from both sides of the coin, alternating between the former and the latter. But, again, what does literature mean? Does it have to be something which requires so much energy and time to merely understand?
Beloved is confusing, purposefully so, to give you a vivid sense of the paranormal, confusing, discombobulated world at 124. Timelines are fractured, characters switch in and out of stream of consciousness, the plot appears and disappears without prior notice. On one hand, the plot is the (second) oldest conflict on American soil, the story of America’s Original Sin (or, again, second, from a strict time perspective). Morrison never gripped me so tightly as when she tricks you into thinking that Sweet Home “before,” with Mr. Garner, was in any way a respite or a place of safety. As Baby Suggs points out to Sethe, that Mr. Garner ‘let’ Halle buy her freedom isn’t meant to be held on a pedestal.
But the real beating heart of the novel is Sethe, Beloved, and Denver, and their attempts at making do in the house that bears the everyday reminder of the worst of human enslavement, of Sethe’s desperate attempt to save her children from experiencing the horrors that exist in the world. I’m not sure if the reveal of Sethe’s actions is meant to be a surprise–somehow I already knew what Beloved stood for and who she was–but the emotional heft leading up to and after the denouement are heart wrenching in the extreme.
That being said, reading this novel is a living memory of English class somewhere. You’re constantly aware of the symbolism and foreshadowing that permeates every page of the book, and in some ways it constantly takes you out of the emotional weight because of how anxious you are to catch everything. What’s the symbolism of 124? What is the red light that Paul D has to walk through to get into the house? Do you have to keep track of the corn, or of education, or of chains, or sugar?
I don’t know, at the end of the day. Am I not sophisticated enough to appreciate a novel like this anymore? I’d like to think not, despite my current predilection for so called “easy books.” The more secure in my reader identity I get, the more I feel like books can’t be complicated for the sake of being complicated. After all, Hurricane Season was complicated, but the driving force of the plot (and the emotions therein) never gets subsumed by the vehicle it arrives in.