Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

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Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett (2015)

book385Wow. This novel is quite a ride as we see a modern-day Lagos, Nigeria, through the eyes of a young black man who’s struggling to make his way in the world around him. He’s a pretty average person, but what makes the story strong is that on the day in question, he wakes up a white man (except for his bottom, as the title admits). From then on, the narrative offers lots of questions about identity, possibility, and the world around him.

As Furo, the protagonist, lives his first day as a white man with red hair and green eyes, he learns about white privilege and learns to take full advantage of that as he determines to lose his former life. To his family (parents and sister), he has simply disappeared and as they search grimly for him, worried for his safety, Furo is working out how he needs to live successfully in a world that he has only seen from the outside. People are confused about him as he speaks pidgin and knows the black culture, but to them, he is an oyibo (a white person). The question is: How can he be both white and Nigerian?

It’s a simmering plot exploring how fluid identity can be on many levels, and who owns that identity – is it the world around that determines your identity based on your looks or can you overcome that to become someone other? As the story progresses, the narrative arc continues to boil until in the last third of the book, it explodes bringing you the reader along for the ride.

It’s an experimental book that plays with unreliable narrators, fluid POVs, and time, so it’s not a story to daydream through really. I’ve read that it’s based on The Metamorphosis by Kafka as satire, but haven’t read that so not familiar with it. Reviews relating the parallels are a bit grumpy about it though.

There are a lot of things at play throughout the book — truth/deception, real vs. not real – and quite a bit of it is written in Nigerian pidgin slang which is pretty fun to read (once you get the hang of it). (Speaking of which, a glossary would have been pretty useful.) It’s also written in British English with British spellings (aluminium vs. aluminum, settee vs. couch etc.) so you’ll need to keep your wits about you but if you pay attention, you’ll be paid in dividends by the read.

So, not an easy read but certainly a fun and interesting one if you’re up for the challenge.

Nigerian words that I learned:

  • Okada (motorbike taxi)
  • Batakari (type of shirt)
  • Oyibo (white person)
  • Buka (roadside food stall)
  • Fufu (not sure but might be food)
  • Eba (type of food)