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A Mercy, By Toni Morrison

A young slave girl uses her love of language to survive in a prequel to the groundbreaking 'Beloved'

Reviewed,Anita Sethi
Sunday 09 November 2008 01:00 GMT

In a harsh world in which humans are subjugated for their race, religion or class, mercy manifests itself in strange ways. Is it an act of compassion or cruelty for a mother to murder her baby in order to save it from the living death of slavery, as Sethe does in Morrison's prize-winning novel, Beloved? A Mercy, Morrison's first novel since the compelling Love (2003), is a prelude to Beloved, set in the infancy of the slave trade, in the 1680s and 1690s, in an America divided by wealth and religion, and it elucidates the oppressive forces enabling slavery to happen at all.

The haunting, plaintive voice at the heart of the novel belongs to the young slave girl Florens, who, in an intense, intimate confessional mode, in flashbacks and time-shifts, tells her tale of abandonment.

Florens's feet "will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires"; the trick of how one might maintain sensitivity in a brutal world is a key concern, and Florens must cultivate considerable strength. When she is seven or eight, she is bundled on a boat, between boxes of books and food, and given to an Anglo-Dutch smallholder, Jacob, in payment of a debt. Morrison's characteristic multiple viewpoints, however, allow us to feel sympathy for Jacob, too; a "ratty orphan become landowner", his story is also a search for belonging, "making a place out of no place", seeking, like all these characters, "a way to be in the world".

Family ties, severed and yet still exerting strong force, are masterfully depicted by Morrison, from the father-son relationship in The Bluest Eye, to the squabbling sisters in Love. It is the bond between mother and daughter which in A Mercy, as in Beloved, carries great emotional force. Separated from her mother and yearning for love, Florens is so eager for approval that "any kindness shown her she munched like a rabbit". Imagery of hunger fills the pages of this visceral novel: bodily and spiritual hunger, the hunger for a home, the rapaciousness of land owners. Desire is twinned with fear; Florens's mind is full of terror – of the bears in the valley; of birds bigger than cows; and of the darkness.

The "intricacy of loneliness" is patterned throughout this story, an emotion haunting the parental void, the "abyss of loss". The closing pages of Beloved echo here ("there is a loneliness that can be rocked") and in her novels of rage, revenge and love, it is loneliness which Morrison depicts most masterfully, the isolating nature of pain. A Mercy is indeed a novel full of pain; "welting" physical pain and psychological trauma; one character is "a slow-witted girl warped from living on a ghost ship".

The ghost ship is the novel's great metaphor for an unmoored, rootless state, the wilderness ever threatening to encroach upon civilisation. Nature is both cruel and tender, bestowing sudden beauty, even if only in dreams of "soft grass with white clover". There is a tension throughout between freedom and entrapment; as the body comes under ownership, the heart strives to remain free.

Florens is gifted with words. Language is as vital to her as food, filling her emptiness, and she recounts memories of learning to read and write, shaping words with pebbles into smooth flat rock. There is a wonderful stylistic tension between the wild overgrowth of poetic images and controlled lucidity, a sense of the primacy of storytelling. Like all of Morrison's work, A Mercy is about the powers of language, and the idea that it is language itself that might bring mercy. '

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