Books: Shining archetypes

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The Independent Culture
PARADISE by Toni Morrison Chatto pounds 16.99

TONI Morrison's first four novels dealt with the lives of black people as the stuff of myth, in beautiful, angry poetic prose. With Beloved, her masterpiece about slavery, she added the dimension of politics. That novel, and its successor, Jazz, were like great suns shining on history's dark and terrible places as well as illuminating people's sources for survival and joy. Her project becomes even clearer with her latest work, Paradise. She's telling the story of black American struggles in the 20th century, no less.

While this means giving back dignity and meaning to communities who endured racism and war, it also entails probing the moral complexities and conflicts inside those communities. The novel leaps from the Thirties to the Seventies, spanning the birth of the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the birth of the counter-culture in the Sixties and the emergence of new-wave politics shortly afterwards. The book is jam-packed with characters, names, anecdotes, its discourses jumping between poetry, journalese, sermons, prophecy, folklore and semiotic free-association. It seems to have and express everything; to be both baggy and loose and compressed and compact. Above all, it is a tour de force of writing. It rubs your face in language and what it can do. It embodies its author's many voiced songs of lament and praise. It is not an easy or simple read.

The core of the novel concerns an all-black town in the mid-west, called Ruby, and a brutal attack on a group of young women living there in a disused convent. The novel's plot weaves back and forth between the lives of different groups in the community and the reasons why the young women end up sharing a house. The opening chapter depicts the town's vigilantes breaking and entering the commune they see as a coven seething with bestial acts and desires. Successive episodes elaborate on why the tragedy comes to pass.

Since this is a novel about competing definitions of paradise, its realities embrace those of dream and story alongside the everyday. Morrison deploys her usual brilliance in describing objects and surfaces, revealing the intense beauties of those aspects of life often dismissed as ordinary or domestic. Cooking pots and front porches and second- hand cars become transfigured, in her vision, the fallen world redeemed and restored by the generous art of her looking, just as her characters are housewives and shop assistants and garage attendants embodying archetypes, shining, larger than life. Her text reads sometimes like the Bible crossed with grand opera. Just occasionally the language goes out of control and soars into cosmic truth and vagueness, or dips close to sentimentality. Just occasionally the poetry seems over-precious and elaborate. Morrison, as a stylist, is streets ahead of most other novelists, but even she can't be perfect all the time. This is not, as her novel reminds us, paradise. Words do fail us, as people are flawed.

The exuberant, unabashed plaits of metaphor that the characters create between themselves, linking each other into a new world promising freedom, contrast with the punitive and demeaning ways of whites. The nuns who opened the ill-fated convent saw their opportunity "to intervene at the heart of the problem: to bring God and language to natives who were assumed to have neither; to alter their diets, their clothes, their minds; to help them despite everything that had once made their lives worthwhile and to offer them instead the privilege of knowing the one and only God and a chance, thereby, for redemption". As the chickens of religious imperialism come home to roost in the book's bloody finale, Morrison leaves us in no doubt of her conviction that separatism, celibacy and radical feminism are failed images if they cannot cherish and console human weakness. Art, and memory, are both signposts.