Toni Morrison closes the trilogy that Beloved began with a fable that counts the cost of purity. Maya Jaggi follows the Nobel laureate's latest road to freedom; This week: Anthony Everitt's Arts Council agony; Michael Arditti flays masochism. Plus: Catherine Cookson; Joanna Trollope; fresh-start fiction
Toni Morrison's first novel since she won the Nobel prize for literature in 1993 was conceived as the culmination of a trilogy that began with Beloved (1987) and continued with Jazz (1992). Paradise (Chatto, pounds 16.99) is perhaps the most complex and accomplished of what could be called, after Sartre, a "Roads to Freedom" sequence. It charts a movement from confinement to a better place, through wrestling with the demons of the past.

Morrison has said that Jazz, set amid the illusory freedom of 1920s Harlem, could not have been written before Beloved, her stark vision of enslavement's psychological aftermath during Reconstruction in the 1860s. Set a century later, after the Civil Rights movement, Paradise also probes the need to restore intimacy among African-Americans (and, glancingly, between black and white) amid the persistent pathologies of the post-slavery era.

Like its precursors, the novel begins with a brief, violent episode - in this case, the storming in 1976 of a convent turned refuge for women - then reaches back to tease out the motives and meaning behind it. The convent stands outside, and in tension with, the town of Ruby, Oklahoma (population 360) - disconcertingly misspelled on the jacket as Rugby. Founded by descendants of freedmen who trekked from Mississippi and Louisiana in the 1890s to build their utopia in Arapaho territory, Ruby is defended by its townsfolk as "the only all-black town worth the pain". Here, "outsider" means "enemy".

Its isolation protects it from a predatory void: "Out There where your children were sport, your women quarry, and where your very person could be annulled". Yet the townsfolk's deepest wound emerges as a historical rebuff by richer, lighter-skinned blacks, who refused succour to the blue- black, midnight-skinned "eight-rocks" that become Ruby's aristocracy. Carrying this "rejection of 1890 like a bullet in the brain", they make a pact to keep their own bloodlines "pure", spitting on the "racially tampered" in a way that perversely mirrors the "one-drop rule" according to which the white South defined black people.

The result of this in-bred insularity is the ostracism of "yellow" outsiders, and the curse of sterility in the wealthy but "crop feeble" Morgan family. The world begins to intrude, through Vietnam - like slavery, an area of American amnesia - and Watergate, at a time when "everybody dead", including King, Kennedy and "a nigger name of X". As the young challenge the elders with Black Power, the convent pits African spiritualism against the Church, sexual revolution against puritanism, and women against men.

This novel belongs mainly to its women. The blind seer Connie, who sells peppers "hot as hellfire", welcomes abused women from Ruby and beyond. There is Mavis, in flight after her infants are smothered in the heat of a mint-green Cadillac; Gigi, traumatised by witnessing a child's death in the Oakland riots; Seneca, orphaned, abused and self-mutilating; and Pallas, privileged but bereft. For Pallas, "The whole house felt permeated with a blessed malelessness, like a protected domain, free of hunters, but exciting, too. As though she might meet herself here - an unbridled, authentic self."

Yet this is also a novel steeped in misogyny, as Ruby's patriarchs deplore the "new and obscene breed of female" in shorts and halter-necks, resenting the passions they stir. They suspect Satanic rites, and see "not women locked safely away from men, but worse, women who chose themselves for company... not a convent but a coven". Restraint of women is the corollary of the blood rule. For the "stallions fighting about who controlled the mares", the convent represents a "mutiny of the mares".

The novel asks: "How could so clean and blessed a mission devour itself and become the world they had escaped?" The warning of the Rev Misner that "isolation kills generations" is ignored. The story has the inexorability of tragedy, yet is redemptive in its hopes for an "outrageously beautiful, flawed and proud people". Deacon Morgan realises, through forbidden love of the green-eyed (impure) Connie, that ideals have been soured: "his long remorse was to have become what the Old Fathers cursed: the kind of man who set himself up to judge, rout and even destroy the needy, the defenseless, the different". The women's efforts to heal themselves, "to bridle, without being trampled, the monsters that slavered them", point towards Ruby's own reprieve.

Whereas Beloved and Jazz pit "rememory" against a false forgetting, Paradise is perhaps a cautionary tale about people who "haven't forgotten a thing since 1755". Building their identity on grievance, they admit no history before slavery. But just as Jazz denies that the past is an "abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack", Paradise asserts the freedom - and necessity - of letting go of injuries, of moving beyond a response to evil that itself dehumanises.

Before the trilogy, Morrison wrote four novels between 1970 and 1981: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby and Song of Solomon. Her popular readership received an unexpected boost when Oprah Winfrey chose Song of Solomon for her TV show's book club; Winfrey has also produced the Hollywood film of Beloved, due this autumn.

Yet Morrison avowedly writes largely about black people and for black readers, determined "not to editorialise for the white gaze". She has also waded bravely into public debates, editing responses to the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas debacle (Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, 1992) and the OJ Simpson trial (Birth of a Nation'hood, 1997). Paradise can be read as an intriguing allegory on racial separatism at a time of despair about the integrationist project and of retreat into cultural nationalism - often patriarchal - and identity politics. It explores the consequences of these doctrines with a subtlety and punch only fiction can deliver.

The novel also furthers her project of subverting American narrative, "freeing up" its language from the "sinister, lazy, predictable racial codes" that Morrison dissected in her critical work Playing in the Dark (1992). Its opening sentence is: "They shoot the white girl first." Yet, almost as a game, it is hard to identify which of the convent women is white. Does it matter? Does it disturb the reader not to know? Is race the salient aspect of these characters? It seems an apt conclusion to the trilogy, which insists on the searing weight of race and its wounds, that racial unity should then be fractured by gender, class, sexuality and love.

Morrison demands much of the reader, though Paradise benefits from appearing less self-conscious about its own construction than did Jazz. It will undoubtedly draw the customary flak that she endures for stoking male- female antagonism. But, in challenging complacencies and opening up new spaces in American narrative fiction, she has no peer.

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