A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Fiction hardcover, 2008 Knopf
A seemingly short novel at 167 pages and narrated in lyrical language by several voices, A Mercy is in fact an intense and often internalized perspective on the effects of slavery on the human mind and heart. In colonial America of the late 1600s, life is harsh for most people and brutal for slaves. With disease, food shortages, and backbreaking work to contend with, the land is rugged and even the weather seems to conspire against you.
Our story centers around Florens, a young slave girl who been accepted reluctantly by a Dutch landowner to pay off a debt owed him. He was offered her mother but the slave mother begged him to take her daughter, thinking that Florens would have a better life with him than with her own brutal, rapist master. Viewpoint shifts as chapters are spoken in different voices, including those of Lina, an old Indian woman whose tribe has been wiped out by smallpox. Sorrow, a lone shipwreck survivor, Rebekka, the childless landowner's wife and Florens mother will all have their say here too. Each will speak in their own voice, something Morrison accomplishes better than most, revealing more about themselves than observation or simple narration could tell us.
Belonging is a strong thread throughout the story, being motherless and yearning for family and closeness, or being childless in the case of their mistress. Lina thinks of young Florens as "love-disabled" because of the way she tries to get close to her, and then to others, including a black freeman who rebuffs her for, among other things, having a slave mentality. There is so much here that the story seemed almost condensed to me. This is not a fast read for most, the story should be read slowly, the language is rich, almost dense at times, and needs to be savoured. But what a powerful story it is. And what it leads us to is the realization that what to some may seem like an act of mercy may in fact feel like an act of abandonment.
Posted by Sandra at Fresh Ink Books.