Literature: Expulsion from the garden

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"The neighbours seemed pleased when the babies smothered. Probably because the mint-green Cadillac in which they died had annoyed them for some time. They did all the right things, of course: brought food, telephoned their sorrow, got up a collection; but the shine of excitement in their eyes was clear.

When the journalist came, Mavis sat in the corner of the sofa, not sure whether to scrape the potato chip crumbs from the seams of the plastic cover or tuck them further in."

Toni Morrison (right) teases out a succession of such shockingly memorable scenarios in her new novel, Paradise: appalling, bone-gnawing tragedies, made horribly real through a patina of tiny domestic details. Her stories niggle under your skin like sofa crumbs under a distressed mother's fingernails.

Be ready to share the suffering of the mother whose twins suffocate in a too-hot car while she nips into a store to buy supper-time weenies; a sick black woman dying in a hospital while a nurse searches half-heartedly for a vet who might treat her; a starving five-year-old girl, alone for six days in an empty kitchen, frantically brushing her 18 milk teeth until the toothbrush is pink with blood, in the hope that good behaviour will miraculously bring back the teenage mother who has abandoned her.

Set in 1974, the novel charts the catastrophic tensions between a patriarchal, all-black settlement in Oklahoma called Ruby, and the strange houseful of despised, rejected and wronged women on the community's outer margins. Guilt, loss and retribution rip through Paradise with the destructive certainty of an Old Testament pestilence.

Such depictions of desperation and desolation will come as no surprise to readers of Morrison's previous works - like Jazz, the ragtime tale of a middle-aged cosmetics salesman's murderous obsession with an 18- year-old girl; or the magnificent, Pulitzer prize-winning Beloved, the harrowing story of a Kentucky slave, haunted by the spiteful ghost of her murdered infant daughter.

In the USA, TV audiences recently had the benefit of an hour-long Oprah Winfrey special attempting to explain Toni Morrison's disarmingly complex novels. Next Tuesday, there's a chance to get the explanations first-hand when the Nobel-Laureate herself makes a rare trip to London to read from Paradise at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Paradise can be as bewildering as it is mesmerising, so savour this chance to get your questions answered.

Toni Morrison appears at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1 (0171-960 4242) 26 May, 7.30pm, pounds 7 (concs pounds 4). Queue early for the few tickets released on the night