The narrative structure of ‘A Mercy’ by Toni Morrison is a complex affair. In the context of current literary culture it isn’t experimental, but it is different from a simple linear narrative, told by one narrator. The first chapter of the novel is told by Florens a slave on a mission for her mistress, in a style which approaches stream of conscious writing. Her first person narrative chapters progress in a linear fashion, as she travels to find her blacksmith lover who can save her mistress from small pox.
This narrative is interrupted at significant points by third person chapters showing the stories of five other people at the estate where Florens lives. There’s Jacob a Dutch farmer/trader who now lives in America and has never owned a slave until Florens is given to him to repay a debt. Rebekka, who answered Jacob’s advert for a wife. Lina a native girl, whose tribe was killed by small pox. Sorrow a red haired, black toothed orphan who was found floating in boys clothing from wreck of a ship. Finally come Willard and Scully, slaves of a neighbour whose sentences keep getting extended. Each character gets one chapter to themselves and these chapters focus on a particular characters history, as well as their life with Florens.
However, although these chapters all focus on different characters they also carry a thread of linear timeline that draws all these chapters into one story of forward progress. This is a different linear timeline than the one that Florens’ storyline follows and it beginnings just before Florens is bought by Sir, then continues to just after Florens returns from her mission to fetch the blacksmith.
At the beginning of ‘A Mercy’ I did not think I was going to get what I wanted from this novella (I know, I am so demanding). When I turn to Morrison I expect and almost crave a particular kind of reading experience, one that presents itself as tangibly complex after just a quick glance at the text. I expect a meeting with a novel written in a style that is as multi-faceted as the complex subject matter it is bound to contain. I want a novel that makes a point of embracing stylised writing if that makes sense. The opening chapter narrated by Florens, which begins
‘Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark – weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more – but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog’s profile plays in the steam of a kettle.’
sounded like the familiar deliberately obscured and intricate style that fills some of her other novels, such as ‘Beloved’ and ‘Jazz’. However, the majority of the writing in ‘A Mercy’ felt open, cheerful and breezily constructed. The novella’s prose style is straightforward and the tone of the writing is an uncomplicated, accessible one that I’m familiar with seeing in many historical novels:
‘In short, 1682 and Virginia was a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land? Even with the relative safety of his skin, solitary travelling required prudence. He knew he might ride for hours with no company but geese flying over inland waterways and suddenly, from behind felled trees a starving deserter with a pistol might emerge, or in a hollow a family of runaways might cower, or an armed felon might threaten. Carrying several kinds of specie and a single knife, he was a juicy target.’
That kind of tone isn’t bad, I really enjoy it when I find it in other books, but it’s not what I expect to find when I go to Morisson’s novels and my reading mood was not set to happily receive this kind of writing without quibbles about its own expectations. I spent a chapter being grouchy before ‘A Mercy’ won me over.
As you can see from the quote above the story is not only accessible, but dynamic. In that passage the man, Jacob, is just riding across the land thinking to himself, yet Morrison instils the action and adventure proper for his circumstances into his solitary riding and transforms the act for the reader. The narrative feels very active, even when it is focused on a character who is describing remembrances or domestic chores, because Morrison’s word choices are so descriptive, for example in Lina’s third person chapter the narrator describes how ‘It was some time afterward while branch-sweeping Sir’s dirt floor, being careful to avoid the hen nesting in the corner, lonely, angry and hurting, that she decided to fortify herself by piecing together scraps of what her mother had taught her before dying in agony.’ . The reader gets a detailed picture of the scene currently being described, but also of another image, of a mother whose dying state is made specific and real by the addition of the phrase ‘in agony’. And Lina’s internal state is described precisely, giving the reader a strong idea of how she feels, ‘lonely, hurt and angry’ which are all distinct states. The word ‘fortify’ identifies exactly how she wants to make herself feel and the idea of her memories being ‘scraps’ provides an evocative physical image that crystallises how the reader views what she has to work with.
There’s also something seductively strong about the wording Morrison uses throughout the novel. Sir is ‘a hurricane of activity labouring to bring nature under his control’ who is ‘forever unprepared for violent, mocking changes in weather and for the fact that common predators neither knew nor cared to whom their prey belonged.’. Rebekka knows ‘the pall of childlessness coupled with bouts of loneliness’ and wonders ‘Was happiness Satan’s allure, his tantalizing deceit? Was her devotion so frail it was merely bait? Her stubborn self-sufficiency outright blasphemy?’. You might say Morrison often uses a ten pence word where a penny one will do, but the cumulative effect of so much lush wordery is a novella that feels somehow sumptuous, while also slightly dangerous with the potential to become seedy and depraved at any minute.
And just by examining the sustain more complex word choice of the novella it becomes apparent that perhaps cogs and wheels are turning in this apparently simple writing style. Perhaps its apparent easy to read nature is actually under pinned by a helluva lot of work.
So much is contained in such a small book and I haven’t even talked about the themes, relationships or symbols contain in ‘A Mercy’, or even the amount of different facets of this historical period that she manages to fit inside those 169 pages. Don’t you just envy Morrison scholar’s who can spend hours pouring over her stories and the themes that connect her books? One for the re-read pile I think.