A Mercy
by Toni Morrison
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Toni Morrison’s new book A Mercy is not much longer than a novella.
But don’t jump to the conclusion that this work, clocking in at around
40,000 words, is a minor effort in the oeuvre
of this much lauded author.  
A Mercy stands
out as one of Morrison’s finest moments, a
masterfully crafted fiction that covers con-
siderable ground in its 167 pages.

In the waning years of the 17th century, an
ambitious trader named Jacob Vaark, himself
a Dutch orphan, assembles a problematic
household in the Edenic landscape of the
New World. His wife, Rebekka, is a mail-
order bride from Britain, an exile from a
callous family. Jacob and Rebekka have no
surviving children, so they rely on the assis-
tance of three women. The Native American
Lina is one of the few survivors of a small-
pox epidemic that led to the destruction of
her tribe, with some help from soldiers who
burned down her village to stop the spreading pestilence. Sorrow is
the name of a slave, another survivor, this time of a shipwreck.
Florens is a young black girl who Vaark takes in lieu of payment from
a debt-laden trader.

See also Ted Gioia on Toni Morrison's
Beloved at The New Canon

If this mini-society, encapsulating so many contrary threads of
American life, can survive and prosper in peace, perhaps there is
hope for the rest of us. And Morrison offers us tantalizing glimpses of
how this peaceful coexistence might have unfolded. Vaark sees
himself, to some degree, as a rescuer who scorns those who traffic in
slaves. His wife finds closer companionship in the Native American
Lina than in the churchified ladies who live nearby. For each member
of the household, their circumstances represent an improvement over
what they underwent before coming to this home. Vaark himself has
ambitions to create an imposing family manor, monument to himself
that will carry on in lieu of the heirs that never survived.

But this ragtag family is, in fact, residing
outside of Eden, not within
it—an exclusion symbolized by the serpents a blacksmith incorporates
into his stylized design for the gate to the new house. Vaark, for his
part, eventually comes to profit from slavery, albeit at a distance that
serves as salve to his conscience. He will die of smallpox before he
can take up residence in his grand home. The blacksmith’s arrival will
also accelerate the disintegration of Vaark’s household. Florens
becomes infatuated with the craftsman, a freed black man who
serves as a key catalyst in several of the book’s subplots. The
blacksmith, we learn also has skills as a healer, but his interventions
tend to reshape the psyches as well as the bodies of those he cures.

As we have come to expect in Morrison’s work, her narrative circles in
on her subject, defying conventional notions of chronology and
pacing. In the fullness of time, Morrison gives you everything you
need to know, but she is especially skilled at withholding information,
letting you see the effects long before you understand the causes.
She does this repeatedly—and effectively—during the course of this
short novel. But especially in the closing pages of
A Mercy, Morrison
sets in place the final bricks that this structure needs to stand firmly.
At the same time, Morrison concludes the book with a satisfying
resolution that also connects the ending with her opening gambit.

Morrison lets each of her key characters control the narrative at some
point in
A Mercy. In lesser hands, these frequent shifts in perspective
would impart a disjointed, scattershot tone to the whole. It is to
Morrison’s credit that she creates a strongly unified work out of the
juxtaposition of such dramatically different perspectives. Even more
striking, Morrison retains her own distinctive style—with her
characteristically potent imagery and overtones of Biblical language—
while also allowing each of her characters to develop an identifiable
voice and worldview.

Morrison is not just one of the most widely read authors of modern
time; she also carries the distinction (perhaps, at times, the burden)
of being the most frequently
taught living novelist. She holds a
preeminent place on high school and college reading lists, and
probably has spawned more term papers in recent years than
Napoleon and Caesar combined. As such, one always reads Morrison
with expectations of getting a lesson in post-colonial perspectives.
Yet it is to Morrison’s credit that she constructs her scenes in
A Mercy
without letting her characters collapse into the one-dimensional stick
figures that populate too many self-consciously post-colonial fictions.
The victims here are sometimes also victimizers, and all
demonstrations of heroism are only relative. In short, there is a
richness and true-to-life contrariness to Morrison’s unfolding plot that
resists the
Cliff Notes bullet points.

Of course, there are lessons here. But, in a strange sort of way,
Morrison’s very fame may prevent her audience from seeing how
multi-layered this book is. After all, this author has herself become a
symbol and catchword. Moreover, she releases this novel at a time
when another African-American has taken on an unprecedented
visibility and symbolic resonance—of ground-breaking historical
importance. “No one talks about the book," Morrison recently
confided to an interviewer. Which is both understandable, yet also a
shame; since Toni Morrison has delivered a book here that is
eminently worth discussing.
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