Toni Morrison’s latest publication, A Mercy, is her 9th novel. Set in 1680s New England, the story follows five inhabitants of a New York farm. The primary story tells of a young slave woman, Florens, who is “given” to a Dutch merchant Jacob Vaark in partial fulfillment of an Anglo-Dutch trader’s debt. Florens finds herself on Jacob’s farm, which is also inhabited by his wife Rebekka, and his two indentured servants, Lina, a Native American woman, and a wild, mute girl Sorrow.
A Mercy is the fourth Toni Morrison novel that I have read, and while it’s a quick, thought-provoking read, it is not my favorite. That is not to say that it isn’t an excellent text. It does have incredible qualities.
One of those qualities is the setting and Morrison’s utilization of it. This novel is remarkable in that Morrison attempts to construct an America that is not consciously aware of race. It is BEFORE the construction of race begins to take root in the American psyche and before it affects the lifestyle of the country. She does this by allowing the reader to draw the connections between the obvious servitude inherent in slavery and indentured servitude and the much more subtle servitude inherent in being a wife.
She also does this by making the race of the characters difficult to discern until the reader is well into the novel. Though this can be frustrating at times, it works well with Morrison’s agenda.
And of course her description of the wild, untamed land is as rich and vivid as her other novels. Morrison’s lyrical language brings the landscape to life in a way that leaves the reader with a vivid impression of it even days after completing the novel.
While these amazing elements of A Mercy, make this a great read, there are other aspects that are not so engaging. The story is told from the perspective of all five of the people living on Jacob’s farm. Two other indentured servants from a neighboring farm also chime in, and at times, the narrative lapses into a dreamy, almost stream of consciousness state that can render the text a bit difficult to follow. In allowing the five characters to have a voice, it doesn’t allow enough opportunity for character development. Florens, for instance, doesn’t really come to life until the last three or four chapters of the novel. As well, Rebekka suddenly becomes a major player about halfway into the novel and then all but disappears. The reader also doesn't learn what "the mercy" is until the final chapter of the book (though it might be obvious well before this), which is problematic in some respects.
As usual, in A Mercy, Morrison creates an engaging and interesting story. The themes of powerlessness and racial injustice are just as apparent in this novel as in her previous works. She also highlights mother/child relationships as well, which also aligns with her other works. As Morrison has mentioned in the past, she writes without the restrictions of the "white gaze." This allows her to offer an insightful, interesting read that helps to highlight what it might have been in very early colonial America.
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