I came to appreciate Toni Morrison late in life. That is a pity. But at least I did it. I finished her book, Love, just a couple of days before she died.
Love is one of the best novels I have ever read. Of course, I think I have now said that about every one of Toni Morrison’s novels that I have read. She was a brilliant writer. When I started to write this review I said, “she is the finest living novelist.” The only writer I could think of to compare her to was Marilynne Robinson. Both of them were astonishing writers.
Loveis a difficult read. I was half way through the novel when I realized I had to start over from the beginning. I was missing too much. I had not caught on to enough. I hate to start over, but sometimes I just have to do that.
Though difficult, the novel, like any great novel, rewards the effort to understand it. That does not mean the reader has captured it. Far from it. It cannot be captured. But the reader can be captured by it. the novel is about 2 “love” stories. But they are hardly ordinary love stories.
The novel is a story about women and how they relate to a powerful man. The novel is told through or from the point of view of those amazing women and centres around a horrid incident at its core. Ultimately it is about the violence and its consequences inflicted on one of the women–but really all of them–by that strong man at the centre of the novel. It is a violence that is as unredeemed as it is chilling.
The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey—“the Big Man who with no one to stop him, could get away with it and anything else he wanted.” He is a 52-year old man who can molest an 11-year old child with impunity and then marry her to make it ‘all right’. her 12 year old friend saw this as a “real betrayal,” by her “friend who grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” She was only 11 and did not know better so she “grinned happily.” After all the adults who loved her would not abandon her to such a ravishing would they? Yes they would. As so often happens the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. She concludes, “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”
Heed the Night, as she is called, has learned that this world into which she has been thrust by her family with the connivance of his family, is a terrifying world where evil catches fire and is doused with sugar creating a sickening black “caramelizing evil.” It is a world haunted by perverse love. It is impossible for her to escape, so Heed became “grown-up nasty.” How else could this have turned out? Christine, Heeds friend, who is 12 years old, and is one of those women who betrayed Heed and ends up with a mother-in-law who is her friend but younger than she is. Of course as Christine says, “most people married young back then (the sooner a girl was taken over by a man, the better.” In the end we learn a bitter black truth in which “the problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have the time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer.” That sweet caramelized evil.
Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends–competing for a 52-year old man are transformed into enemies. They learn to hate. Only hate is natural in this most unnatural world. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Even the holy is turned perverse in a world so infused with dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks. The topsy-turvy world is a product of hate where even the holy turns evil. “There, in a little girl’s bedroom, an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”
There is another “love story,” if the first can be called a love story. This is a passionate love story. Young lovers this time. Such love should be pure and innocent. It is the story of Junior and Romen. When Roman sees Junior, “she seemed to him as beautiful as it is possible for a human to be.” It starts out innocent, but nothing in the novel is innocent for long. In such a world how could it be different? All the principal characters in the novel are African-American. Of course, all are victims of white dominance and oppression that transforms their lives in the most ugly way imaginable. Mainly that oppression is entirely overt, but it is real. It curdles all love into caramelized evil where love is transformed into hate. Perverse love is the bastard child of oppression. As Women says, Junior “plays hard, that’s all. I mean she likes being hurt…She didn’t just like it. She preferred it.” And Romen in response, was “cold, unsmiling, watching himself inflict pain and suffer pain above scream level where a fresh kind of joy lay.” No wonder that when in the abandoned hotel she undresses for him she keeps on her socks, then ties one around his neck and into the other inserts her foot and “the foot she slipped into the sock looked to him like a hoof.” His innocent passionate lover becomes the devil incarnate–caramelized black evil again. After all, “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick.” And he becomes her “Sugarboy.”
In the novel family is as twisted and s curdled as love. Junior is assaulted by her uncles (“the howling uncles”) who are “idle teenagers whose brains had been insulted by the bleakness of their lives, alternated between brutality and coma.” They are the products of a racist society. The uncles threatened to turn Junior over to another old man–Vosh. This woke her up. The threat was real. As she thought, “the possibility that it could happen, that she could be handed over to the old man in the valley who liked to walk around with his private parts in his hands and singing hymns of praise, jolted her up from the floor, out of reaching hands and through the door.” For Junior prison is a reprieve from the maniacal madness of family. Prison is better than life with her family!
The world of love is no paradise. “People with no imagination feed it with sex–the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that–softly, without props.”
One of Morrison’s novels is called Paradise. This is certainly no paradise. But it is real. It is the product of a profoundly racist society where those at the top dominate with impunity and those at the bottom accept the dominance while “grinning,” because they don’t even know anything better.