bookgazing: (i heart books)
Eva from 'A Striped Armchair' has kindly said that I can try out her useful one sentence review style in this post, so that I can catch you up on my thoughts about some of the books I never quite got around to reviewing in 2011. Time for me to let loose with one of my favourite, forbidden, forms of writing (the run on sentence).

Books I Loved and Found Every Page a Delight

Read 'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry if you enjoy big family saga narratives, set in India, that have multiple storylines, like 'A Suitable Boy', but you want a novel that looks at the realities of being a poorer member of Indian society.

Reread 'Persuasion' by Jane Austen if you need a reminder that even in Austen's time quiet but strong, on the shelf heroines could get the guy ;) For a more in depth look at one of the greatest stories ever told you should check out the series of posts Book Snob put up during the Persuasion readalong that she held last year: First Impressions, Emotion and Persuasion's Men

Reread 'Jazz' by Toni Morisson if you're looking for a literary novel full of drama, with a distinctive narrative style, which successfully calls forth empathy for people who can at times be rather unpleasant.

Books I Would Have Loved, Except for One or Two Little Quibbles or Books I Really, Really Liked

Read 'The Locusts Have No King' by Dawn Powell if you liked Powell's 'The Happy Island', or you enjoy satires about people who may have taken a wrong turn and reached bittersweet endings.

Read 'Miss Hargreaves' by Frank Baker if you fancy a fun farce mixed with fantasy, populated by a set of characters who sometimes test a readers' patience.

Read 'Iceland' by Betsy Tobin if you love straight mythic retellings, written in modern language, that are told from a female perspective and are in the mood for a rather breezy read.

Books I Definitely Liked, Although They Didn’t Blow Me Away or Books that had Great Points Counterbalanced by Not-Great Ones

Read 'Wild Life' by Molly Gloss if you'd like to read a novel which contains a touch of sci-fi/fantasy and follows a female writer with progressive ideas, trying to carve a space to write in and you don't mind a bit of a meandering plot.

Books That Aren’t For Me but I Could Still See Some Good Points

Read 'Journey By Moonlight' by Antal Szerb if you're interested in creepy family relations, or past obsessive love, with bleeds into the present, souring life and you can put up with a bit of a self-indulgent narrator.

Read 'Have His Carcase' by Dorothy L Sayers if you loved 'Strong Poison', (which I did and you can read a bit about why in my post on 'Strong Poison') so you want to make sure you know everything that's happened between Harriet and Peter before you read 'Gaudy Night', which means you’re fine with a mystery plot that is nonsensical and takes too long to unravel.

Read 'My Legendary Girlfriend' by Mike Gayle if you're looking for a funny story about a guy in his mid twenties and you don't mind that his main focus is still the girl who dumped him two years ago, or that the comparisons between this book and 'Bridget Jones' on the back cover are mistaken, because if Bridget had spent a whole novel going on about a man who had broken up with her two years ago, who she doesn't even see for most of the book, then she would have been called a stalker, or a whiner and the book would never have sold as well because double standards exist, but also because she would have been really dull.

*Ahem*. That last one got a bit out of control, didn't it?

Thanks so much for letting me have a go at this format Eva. If I can ever do you a blogging favour just ask.
bookgazing: (Default)
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.

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Two weeks ago I was on my first date in two years. Despite being a short lunch date it flagged badly, mostly because I didn’t want to be there. We’d passed through every area of first date conversation at speed, the guy couldn’t even keep where I lived in his head and I was happily settling down to watch the people outside the restaurant whilst eating some fantastic gnocchi. Desperate to engage me my date brought out the big conversational guns.

“Read any good books lately?” he asked.

I told him I was reading ‘Jazz’ by Toni Morrisson. I thought it sounded pretentious, even though it was true, but it turned out he had no idea who Toni Morrisson was.

“What’s that about then?”

I thought about it. How do you describe Morrison’s novel which is full of loss, longing, belonging and the different gradients of race wrapped up in the heat of the jazz age, quickly to a disinterested listener? I decided to give him the book jacket blurb, “It’s about a man who shoots his sweetheart. Then when his wife finds out she tries to disfigure the corpse with a knife.”

Fear flashed across his face and we left soon after.

This short synopsis certainly makes the book sound ‘dangerous’ and it is. Morrison intends her books to be dangerous so that readers are pushed headfirst into the violent, bitter consequences that inhabit lifetimes informed by slavery. In ‘Beloved’ a young slave kills a child with a handsaw only to find it grown, alive in appearance but with the cruel need of the dead. ‘The Bluest Eye’ is based around a vicious incestuous rape. Morrison wants readers to be shaken from the complacency induced by day time films where slaves released from bondage easily go on to have well adjusted lives, unaffected by years of whips and put downs.

Once again in ‘Jazz’ she shows the aftermath of slavery and how it continues to shape the path of the character’s freedom. Joseph’s life is shaped by the memory of his mother ‘Wild’, driven mad by slavery. His wife, Violet has hopes bound up with stories her mother told her of a ‘golden’ child, born to a wealthy white woman and so saved from slavery. Joseph's lover, Dorcas grows up in an age when free black culture is developing in jazz music but she is held back from participating fully by her aunt. She craves acceptance but only finds satisfaction when being corrected, conscious that her clothes, her hair, her skin do not fit some kind of unknown requirement. Characters from all generations are marked by the after effects of slavery.

In the forward Morrison explains the frustration that decided the kind of narrative ‘Jazz’ would have. Unable to start writing the book in a way that pleased her but immersed in the feel of her characters and their age Morrison just started writing that. Instead of using a linear narrative she forms her story out of the details of the age, like the smell of perfume and the way women wore their hats. This detail accumulates to create not just a picture of characters but a moving narrative and the atmosphere they lived in. Morrison knew she didn’t want to just place characters in a story and have the reader pick up carefully placed clues, alluding to the historical setting. She strives to write in the language of the period, not just using the slang but writing in the rhythm of the music and pace of live at the time. Probably my favourite thing about ‘Jazz’ was the pulse of the periods emotions expressed by the rhythms of the language.

This book is strong, bitchy, violent and vivid. It’s full of the heated atmosphere of the jazz age, undercut by the uncertainty of people trying to build a way of living free. An unashamedly dangerous book to start ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge’.

Random Questions of Exploration:

Why are Joseph and Violet childless? She steals the baby – why do they not have children of their own?

What causes the fire at Dorcas’ parent’s house?


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April 2019



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